In Depth

Where does your recycling really end up?

Millions of tons of UK waste sent abroad may end up in landfill, warns watchdog

Waste sent abroad from Britain to be recycled may instead be ending up in landfill sites as a result of inadequate monitoring of the system, the National Audit Office (NAO) has warned.

A new report by the Government’s spending watchdog criticises the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) for its failure to ensure that companies are meeting their packaging recycling obligations.

Under a government scheme, companies can meet these obligations by paying for “recovery evidence notes” from reprocessing plants or exporters, reports The Independent. But according to the NAO, Defra “has not been sufficiently proactive” to prevent abuse of the system.

Latest figures show that each year the UK throws away 27 million tons of waste, around 45% of which is reported to be recycled. Under EU recycling targets, that should increase to at least 50% by 2020.

However, “Britain does not have the requisite infrastructure to recycle its own plastic waste”, so most of it is sent abroad, says The Guardian

“The system appears to have evolved into a comfortable way for Government to meet targets without facing up to the underlying recycling issues,” said the NAO report.

“The Government has no evidence that the system has encouraged companies to minimise packaging or make it easy to recycle,”  it continues. ”And it relies on exporting materials to other parts of the world without adequate checks to ensure this material is actually recycled, and without consideration of whether other countries will continue to accept it in the long-term.”

Nearly two-thirds of the UK’s total waste plastic exports are sent to China. But the Chinese government intends to stop the importation of 24 kinds of solid waste, including plastic water bottles, by the end of the year, in a campaign against  “foreign garbage”.

The head of the NAO, Sir Amyas Morse, said: “If the UK wants to play its part in fully tackling the impacts of waste and pollution, a tighter grip on packaging recycling is needed. The Government should have a much better understanding of the difference this system makes and a better handle on the risks associated with so much packaging waste being recycled overseas.”

Labour MP Mary Creagh, chair of the Environmental Audit Committee, said that the new report showed that the current recycling system “has become a tick-box exercise”. She called on the Government to “fix this broken system” so that “people can be confident what goes in the recycling bin gets recycled”.​

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