EA to investigate waste plastics exports fraud

An official investigation has been launched into claims of widespread fraud and system abuse in the plastics recycling industry, with allegations that exporters are falsely claiming for significant tonnages of plastic waste through the packaging responsibility system.

The Environment Agency (EA) has set up an investigation team to look into the accusations that the plastic recycling export system is being abused by criminals, at a time when overseas markets for UK waste are closing due to an unwillingness to take contaminated waste – moves precipitated by China’s ban on 24 grades of solid waste at the start of the year and a 1.5 per cent contamination limit for all other exports.

EA to investigate waste plastics exports fraud
Inspecting imported waste in Guangzhou, China.

The investigative team will primarily be tasked with looking into allegations that:

  • Exporters are falsely claiming through the packaging responsibility system;
  • UK plastic waste is not being recycled properly once it arrives at its destination;
  • Some illegal shipments of waste are being taken through the Netherlands to East Asia; and
  • UK firms that are known to export contaminated waste are not prevented from continuing to export.

According to the Guardian, EA data suggests that six UK plastic waste exporters have seen their export licences suspended or revoked in the past three months, while one firm has been able to carry on exporting despite having had 57 containers of plastic waste prevented from leaving UK ports due to contamination in the past three years.

Criticism for EA’s monitoring of producer responsibility

The packaging producer responsibility system operates in the UK as the Packaging Recovery Note (PRN) system and the Packaging Export Recovery Note (PERN) system, where compliance is demonstrated through the purchase of PRNs/PERNs from reprocessors or exporters. Both the producer responsibility system and the EA’s monitoring of it have come in for criticism in recent times.

In July this year, the National Audit Office (NAO) released a report stating that the PRN system, a consultation on the reform of which is set to be launched by the end of the year, was open to ‘fraud and error’ due to the fact that reprocessors and exporters are relied upon to self-report the amounts of waste they receive. The EA was also criticised for not providing effective controls – only three unannounced site visits were made in 2017/18, covering just 1.4 per cent of accredited reprocessors and exporters in the UK. In addition, only four queries were made to overseas agencies requesting that they check registration documents in 2017, compared to 53 in 2014.

And now, as reported in the Guardian, it is understood that the EA has received information showing significant differences between the amount of packaging reported through the PRN system and the amount of plastic exports recorded by HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC), with exporters claiming to have sent 35,135 tonnes more plastic waste abroad than actually recorded.

Commenting on the report, Jakob Rindegren, Recycling Policy Advisor for the Environmental Services Association (ESA), said: “ESA has made the Environment Agency aware of apparent discrepancies between HMRC’s figures and PERNs relating to plastics export mainly to the EU.

“It is not entirely clear yet whether the discrepancies may be partly caused by inaccuracies in the way data is collated. However, in any event, it is important that the EA regulates the system robustly to ensure that criminals are prevented from operating.”

A ‘tipping point’ for UK waste exports

UK waste exports have come under increased scrutiny in recent months, mainly due to the diversion of waste exports away from the Chinese market, and the ensuing restrictions imposed by alternative destinations such as Malaysia and Vietnam. Since the start of the year, exports to to Malaysia have tripled and exports to Thailand have increased 50 times, while exports to Turkey in the first three months of this year have more than doubled and exports to the Netherlands have increased by 10,000 tonnes to 38,207 tonnes over the first six months of the year.

In response to the flood of new imports, Vietnam and Malaysia implemented import restrictions in August to ease the strain on ports and customs, while Poland is considering similar restrictions after it sent 45 containers of illegal waste back to the UK in August.

Phil Conran, Director of 360 Environmental and chair of the government’s Advisory Committee on Packaging, said: “All these markets are effectively closing the door to the poor quality material and they are increasingly limited in what they will accept of the better quality material.

“At the moment material is still being collected and still going somewhere ... but all the sense is that we have reached a tipping point and we simply are struggling to find markets for material that is being collected.”

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