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UK condemned over plastic waste exports

Following the EU reminder that since 1 January it will no longer allow the export of mixed and contaminated plastic waste to developing countries, the UK is being accused of using its post-Brexit independence to adopt ‘a far weaker stance with respect to human rights and environmental protection’.

The criticism comes from Basel Action Network (BAN), the organisation that combats illegal scrap trade and questionable recycling practices across Asia and Africa.  

BAN says the UK is allowing the export of some types of plastic scrap, which the EU says is prohibited, using the ‘prior informed consent’ notification process. A UK consultancy, 360 Environmental, says this specifically applies to the Y48 category – non-hazardous grades including PVC.

‘While the Boris Johnson administration’s manifesto called for a full ban on the export of plastic waste in the future, it is far from certain that this aspiration will become UK law,’ says BAN.

‘The UK has had almost two years to transpose the EU plastic waste export ban into UK law,’ stresses BAN’s director Jim Puckett. ‘We had assumed the UK would at least follow the EU and so it is a shock to find out now that instead they chose to have a far weaker control procedure which can still permit exports of contaminated and difficult to recycle plastics to developing countries all over the world.’

Dumped and burned

According to BAN, in September the UK shipped almost 7 000 tonnes of plastic waste to Asian countries including Malaysia, Pakistan, Vietnam, and Indonesia. ‘Most of the destinations are considered to have what Puckett describes as ‘substandard’ waste management facilities. ‘Such facilities can expose workers to volatile organic compound emissions and while polluting surface and ground waters and highly toxic air emissions from the open or crude burning of unrecyclable material,’ according to BAN.

Worst case Indonesia

‘It is disturbing to see that the UK wishes to continue its waste management malpractice using developing countries as dumping grounds,’ says Yuyun Ismawati of the Nexus3 Foundation. The NGO claims to have documented large amounts of UK plastic waste dumped and burned in Indonesia by ‘substandard’ recyclers.

Nexus3 and BAN are calling on the UK government to take immediate steps to ban all plastic wastes exports and ‘thus become self-sufficient in plastic waste management and to reduce plastic waste generally by banning the use and sale of single-use plastics’.

The UK’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said the government had pledged to ban the export of all plastic waste to non-OECD countries but did not give a timetable for action. The department added it had commissioned research to better understand existing UK plastic waste recycling capacity and would consult in due course on how to deliver its manifesto commitments.

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