Dumped and burned: Over half of ‘recycled’ plastic in the UK is shipped abroad

Should exporting plastic be illegal? Yesterday, Greenpeace revealed that UK plastic waste sent to Turkey for recycling is often set on fire, or abandoned by the roadside. 

Imagine large piles of plastic stacked up several metres high. Then imagine this rubbish is on fire. Black, poisonous smoke billows into the sky, making it hard to breathe.

As you walk along the road, you see huge bags of waste that are split open. Plastic packaging spills out onto the grass, the wind blowing some into a nearby river. It floats downstream towards a flock of birds, a thick plastic coating on the water’s surface.

In Turkey, you don’t have to imagine such a scene. It’s a reality. And shockingly, much of the plastic comes from the UK – Tesco carrier bags and Lucozade bottles shipped across Europe, before they are illegally dumped in their tonnes.

Yesterday, Greenpeace shattered the eco-friendly image of recycling that many of us have. As part of their new report, the environmental group investigated 10 sites in southern Turkey where plastic had been discarded. They found packaging from UK supermarkets at every one.

Last year, 210,000 tonnes of UK plastic was shipped to Turkey. That’s about 21 plastic Eiffel Towers.

Government adverts encourage us to recycle much of what we throw away. Every week, most of us carefully separate our rubbish into colour-coded bins, thinking we’re doing our bit for the environment.

But there’s simply too much plastic for the UK to process. Every single day, the country sends three and a half Olympic swimming pools’ worth of plastic to foreign countries for recycling. The UK throws away more plastic per person than almost any other nation on Earth, second only to the USA. Thanks to Greenpeace, we now know where much of it ends up.

Turkey is not the only country to open their doors to the world’s plastic. When China introduced its National Sword policy in 2018, Malaysia became the dumping ground of choice for many countries.

CK Lee, an environmental activist in the country, told Greenpeace of the impact on people’s health. Local residents had “breathing difficulties, difficulty sleeping, nausea”, and felt seriously “unwell” after breathing in the toxic fumes from plastic waste burned in the open air.

Recycling is not new: the Japanese reused paper as early as the 11th Century. But synthetic plastics are complicated and expensive to recycle. Rather than build the right facilities, it is easier for governments to ship them elsewhere. That way, it becomes somebody else’s problem.

Should exporting plastic be illegal?

Plastic inevitable

Of course it should be, say some. When richer countries export to poorer countries, they treat the developing world like their personal rubbish dump. By making exports illegal, nations will be forced to take responsibility for their own waste. Last year, Malaysia sent back 150 shipping containers of illegally exported rubbish. A ban would stop ships from making the journey in the first place.

It’s not that simple, say others. Sure, a ban sounds good, but if we simply go on producing plastic as before, the damage to the environment continues. In 2018, the UK generated an estimated 5.2 million tonnes of plastic waste – enough plastic to fill Wembley stadium six times over. What matters, some argue, is not whether this waste is exported, but that it is dramatically reduced.

Key Words

Poisonous: One recycling plant in Essex uses a machine that creates a cotton bedsheet smell to mask the burnt plastic odour.

Greenpeace: An organisation set up in 1971 to “ensure the ability of the Earth to nurture life in all its diversity”.

National Sword: A 2018 policy which banned the import of most plastics. Before that, China took 45% of global plastic waste.

Japanese: Paper was so valuable that there were shops which sold nothing else.

Synthetic: Plastics created using fossil fuels. They also take longer to biodegrade, making them terrible for the environment.

Wembley: At full capacity, the football stadium holds 90,000 fans. It can also fit seven billion pints of milk from pitch to roof


Exposed! The Great Plastic Recycling Scandal