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Research Centre

How Europe’s plastic waste exports contribute to ocean plastic pollution elsewhere

By September 17, 2020February 17th, 2023No Comments
© Image by MichaelGaida from Pixabay

What is the link between how we recycle our plastic waste and ocean plastic pollution, and is this simply a reflection of the inequality which exists between the developed and developing world?

The United Kingdom produces a huge amount of plastic packaging waste, with 2.4 million tonnes generated annually, 1.7 million tonnes of which comes from households. This means that the average household produces a minimum of 61 kilograms of plastic packaging waste every single year. The directly available options to process this waste are: landfill, incineration or recycling, or is there another route?

The link between UK plastic waste exports and ocean plastic 

Although according to DEFRA the UK’s plastic packaging recycling rates reached 46.2% in 2018, well above the EU target of 22.5%, these figures don’t provide the full story as a considerable amount of plastic waste is exported for recycling overseas. Data collected only a year earlier by WRAP, suggests that in 2017, at least 686 thousand tonnes of plastic waste was exported for recycling,  twice the amount recycled domestically.

This practice is not unique to the United Kingdom. A new study by the Ryan Institute at the National University of Ireland, found that almost half (46%) of all post consumer polyethylene plastic waste from European countries was exported outside of its source country in 2017. Yet once this waste crosses the border, it is not always clear what actually happens to it. In fact, the study which analysed UN Comtrade Data suggested that up to 31% of exported plastic waste is not being recycled. They also estimated that between 83,187-180,558 tonnes ended up in the ocean, accounting for 1.3 – 7.5% of total plastic ocean debris.

What is most remarkable about this new research was that contributions to ocean plastic from exports differed between source countries. For example, the largest flow of ocean plastic came from Germany, while the greatest share all led back to just a few countries, including the United Kingdom. Why is this the case?

Export destinations matter

When it comes to the fate of our exported plastic waste, it is important to consider where it is being exported to. What makes the United Kingdom stand out from other European exporters is that 85% of the main PE plastic exports were destined for non-European countries, such as Indonesia, Vietnam and Malaysia – all of which lack waste management infrastructure. As PhD Researcher, George Bishop explains:

“When countries exported the PE (plastic) outside of the generally high-quality waste management systems of Europe to non-European countries with typically weaker waste management chains, the inadequately managed waste, and thus the PE (plastic) potentially entering the oceans increased.”

While a lack of infrastructure is one thing, further complications arise when plastic waste arriving from abroad is mixed or contaminated and cannot be recycled. If not returned to the source country, this waste finds its way to local dump sites or worse.

Last year the Malaysian government said it refused to become a dumping ground, and they vowed to return almost 3,000 tonnes of plastic waste.

“Malaysians like any other developing countries have a right to clean air, clean water, sustainable resources and a clean environment to live in, just like citizens of developed nations.”

Yeo Bee Yin, Malaysia’s Environment Minister

Yet this practice of exporting waste continues to happen across Southeast Asia. Figures from Unearthed indicate that the UK government exported more than 300 tonnes of plastic waste per day to non-OECD countries in the first half of this year. While exports to Thailand decreased, countries such as Malaysia saw a rise in 81% compared to last year.

Inequality and ocean plastic pollution

When it comes to ocean plastic pollution, developing countries are often identified as key leakage sources, but rarely does the public narrative address the inequality which sits at the root of this problem. A recent study by the University of Queensland in two remote Indonesian communities illustrated just how precarious the situation is in some of these more remote islands. Plastic literacy tends to be low and the dangers around ocean plastic are not always well understood. Rising living standards coupled with a growing preference for packaged foods over fresh produce due to price and convenience adds to their waste generation. However, without any sort of waste facilities, rubbish is either burnt or disposed of directly into the ocean. These communities are thus faced with not only an environmental catastrophe, but also a progress dilemma.

“The social and economic costs of plastic waste are often borne by those affected rather than those responsible.”

Dr. Anna Phelan

While it is easy to point fingers and shift the problem of ocean plastic elsewhere, socioeconomic inequalities in the developing world, and a lack of quality control in our recycling systems are a core part of the problem. 

By continuing to export our recycling waste abroad to communities which don’t always have the know-how nor the facilities to process the waste, is knowingly contributing to ocean plastic pollution. In order to protect our oceans, we should be actively supporting these coastal communities through investments and the development of adequate waste management infrastructure. Yet this should also be extended to what we do at home, to ensure that our recycling systems are up to par.