The Conservative party’s election manifesto pledge to ban the export of plastic waste to developing countries has been criticised as a “half measure” that would do little to stop the UK “offshoring” its rubbish.
The Tories have promised to ban exports of plastic waste to countries not in the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) by an unspecified date.
With the UK’s general election less than two weeks away all the UK’s parties are vowing to step up their commitment to tackling climate change and other environmental issues in a bid to attract younger voters.
But campaign groups said the commitment by the Tories on plastic waste was not firm enough.
Sam Chetan-Welsh, senior political adviser at Greenpeace, said: “If this government really wants to stop dumping plastic garbage on other countries, then we should have plastic reduction targets enshrined in law.”
The majority of the UK’s plastic waste now goes to members of the group of 36 OECD countries, which include Turkey, Mexico and Chile. In the year to September, these countries imported 62 per cent of Britain’s unwanted plastic, up from 37 per cent in the same period last year.
Turkey took the most plastic waste of any country worldwide, doubling its imports compared with last year to 106,471 tonnes — more than a quarter of the UK’s total unwanted plastic. The latest OECD data, from 2017, shows that Turkey sends 90 per cent of waste to landfill.
Tim Grabiel, a lawyer at the Environmental Investigation Agency, said it was “no secret that countries such as Turkey have limited infrastructure and capacity to deal with the plastic waste crossing into their borders in an environmentally and socially responsible manner.”
The Tories “could and should have gone much further” by banning exports to all countries without developed recycling capacities, he added.
Labour and the Liberal Democrats pledged to end all plastic waste exports, though only the Lib Dems set a deadline, of 2030.
The world generates 2bn tonnes of waste every year, only 13.5 per cent of which is recycled, according to the World Bank. Nevertheless, exporting waste has become big business, with countries sending what they don’t want to others who sort and process it for recycling, reuse or to be used as fuel.
But material sent overseas often ends up in landfill or strewn across beaches if countries are overwhelmed by how much arrives, errors are made or the waste is unusable.
In 2017, China — formerly the centre of the global recycling trade — abruptly banned the import of certain waste products, including plastics, because too much “dirty” or “hazardous” waste was arriving. Malaysia, which was the biggest importer of the UK’s plastic waste in 2018, started sending shipments back this year.
Julian Kirby, lead plastic pollution campaigner at charity Friends of the Earth, said being a high-income country “certainly does not guarantee that you’re dealing with waste properly.”
Defra declined to comment, citing purdah rules during the general election campaign. The Conservative Party did not respond to a request for comment.