Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee: End plastic waste exports by 2027

The Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (EFRA) Committee has called for a ban on the export of all plastic waste from the UK by the end of 2027 in a bid to reduce the country’s contribution to global plastic pollution.

shipping containerWithin a new report published today (7 November), titled ‘The price of plastic: ending the toll of plastic waste’, the committee states that the proposed ban should be part of a strategy to use less plastic, re-use more of it, and boost recycling. It calls on the Government to ‘work with industry to unlock up to £1 billion of private investment in domestic plastic reprocessing infrastructure’.

To combat the ‘pervasive problem of plastic pollution’, EFRA suggests that the government publish a roadmap on how to achieve the 2027 ban by March 2023.

Further, to achieve its goals, the committee makes the following government recommendations:

  • Encourage greater adherence to the ‘waste hierarchy’, which requires reducing the volume of waste by eliminating unnecessary use or packaging and then encouraging re-use of it. Recycling is only seen as an option after the first steps are considered.
  • Government targets are reformed to more closely follow this waste hierarchy – and aim for all plastic waste to be recycled, re-used or composted by 2042.
  • Expedite rollout of the ‘Extended Producer Responsibility’ (EPR), which could see producers of plastic packaging pay fees on the packaging products they put on the market. Further, the committee recommends that the scheme is applied to more producers – covering all businesses that put more than one tonne of packaging on the market by 2030.
  • Create a taskforce to explore ways of encouraging greater uptake of ‘re-use and refill’ schemes – such as those where customers use their own containers to fill up with a product.
  • Confirm its support for the Plastic Packaging Tax which is applied to products that contain less than 30 per cent of plastic from recycled sources. This tax is expected to increase the demand for recycled plastic material and therefore encourage investment in the recycling sector.
  • Use some of the income raised by the EPR and Plastic Packaging Tax schemes to invest in recycling infrastructure and to support research in technologies that can tackle hard to recycle plastics, such as plastic films.

The Chair of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, Sir Robert Goodwill MP, said: “For far too long the UK has been reliant on exporting its waste overseas and making it someone else’s problem. Plastic waste originating in our country is being illegally dumped and burned abroad. The UK must not be a part of this dirty trade and that’s why we are calling for a total ban on waste plastic exports.

“To do this we need to reduce how much plastic we use and consume, invest in greater capacity to reprocess our own waste and support research into new technologies and materials. If the UK takes a lead in this, we have the potential to create hundreds of new jobs and build a multi-billion pound waste management industry”.

The plastic problem

Currently, the UK exports 60 per cent of the 2.5 million tonnes of plastic packaging it creates.

Turkey is the ‘main destination’ for this waste, EFRA says – the committee has received ‘alarming accounts’ of the ‘irreversible and shocking’ environmental and human health impacts created as a result of the British waste.

UK plastics are often sent abroad to countries other than Turkey that often do not have the ability to dispose of waste sustainably. In less developed countries, the report highlights that this has led to ‘a range of economic, social and health problems including land and water degradation, air pollution and food chain contamination’.

Worldwide, an estimated 380 million tonnes of plastic are produced every year. Due to the ‘enduring nature’ of plastic products – often designed for single use – they have become a key contributor to the waste issue, particularly plastic packaging for consumer and industrial goods.

Combating waste crime

The committee also wants the government to step up the enforcement of existing rules to prevent criminal gangs illegally exporting and dumping UK-produced waste. The report said waste crime had become a ‘low risk, high reward endeavour’.

However, the Recycling Association has warned that waste crime will continue to happen, even if exports of plastics for recycling are banned. The Recycling Association chief executive Simon Ellin said: "Banning plastic exports to solve waste crime would be like trying to crack a nut with a sledgehammer. It would penalise legitimate exporters, while doing nothing to prevent illegal operators.

"The EFRA Committee has used data from 2020, but much has changed since then. The markets we now trade with are typically in the EU or Turkey, and legitimate exporters are working under very high quality rules and regulations.

"With the tough Basel regulations and UK law, it is already very difficult to export plastics unless they are high quality materials ready for recycling. In addition, countries such as Turkey, which was highlighted by the EFRA Committee, have also brought in tough import laws on plastics. Indeed, many of the recycling facilities in Turkey are as good as, or sometimes better than those in the UK. Those who are exporting plastics illegally are bypassing these laws, and are not going to be deterred by a ban on legitimate operators.”

"Since the introduction of the new Basel rules, and the bans/restrictions on imports by many Asian countries, exports of plastics have largely been to EU countries and Turkey. Since these rules have come in, only around 2 per cent of exports go to non-OECD countries now. This trade to Turkey and EU nations has helped to keep competition in the market and ensured that UK reprocessors work under a free and fair market.

"It also means that polymers can be exported to specialist facilities that may not exist in the UK at the moment. A ban on exporting plastics would be short-sighted, will not reduce waste crime and will distort the market for consumers leading to higher prices.”

Industry responses

Discussing how achievable the committees goal of stopping plastic waste being exported by 2027, Professor Steve Fletcher, Director of the Global Plastics Policy Centre, University of Portsmouth, told Resource that: “It will certainly be a challenge, but it will hopefully create a disruption to the current linear system that will drive significant reductions in waste production and the adoption of reuse and refill schemes as we move to more circular resource use models.”

Fletcher also addressed the current infrastructure, and whether changes will need to be made to achieve this goal, telling Resource that: “The infrastructure needed depends entirely on how a plastic waste export ban is used. My hope is that the ban will be taken as an opportunity to make fundamentally different choices about how we use and manage plastics in our economy. If this opportunity is grasped, we will need new infrastructure focused on reuse and refill schemes. This will also help us to manage our own plastic waste by relying less on downstream waste management approaches and more on the reduction of plastic entering the economy and greater levels of reuse of plastic in the economy.”

Also commenting on the report, CIWM Policy and External affairs Director, Lee Marshall, said: “CIWM broadly welcomes the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee report and it is good to see the committee taking on board several points that CIWM made in response to their enquiry.

“CIWM however does not support the MP’s call for a total ban on all exports of UK plastic waste by the end of 2027. Whilst we naturally advocate plastic waste being reprocessed in the UK wherever possible, export has an important role to play in the development of a global circular economy. International markets remain vital for the recycling of sorted, clean, and graded materials provided they are exported in accordance with all relevant legislation.

“The CIWM’s response called for a tightening up of regulations to ensure that material is only exported to fully compliant and legitimate recyclers who maintain the appropriate standards. Whilst there may be a case to consider a possible ban on exports to all non-OECD countries, this could impact legitimate operations in countries such as Malaysia.

“It is important to recognise that the issue with increased recycling in the UK is not solely the initial investment in reprocessing infrastructure. The ongoing operating costs, particularly in relation to labour and energy, also act as a barrier to a long-term viable reprocessing industry capable of processing all the country’s waste plastic.”

Further response was given by Tomos Davies, a spokesman from the UK Compostable Coalition, who said: “Alongside proposals to raise greater public awareness and tax single-use plastic producers, this report rightly identifies an ‘emerging consensus’ around the benefits of compostable packaging in replacing difficult to recycle plastics. This cross-party group also recognises the critical role compostables can play in reducing the presence of conventional polluting plastics in food waste recycling.

“Moving forward, the UK Government should now support the Committee’s recommendation that income raised from the plastic packaging tax and extended producer responsibility schemes should support the development of compostable technology.”

Speaking on the ‘delayed recycling reforms’, Dr. Tim Rotheray, Viridor’s ESG Director added: “Every week householders put out their recycling and rightly expect for it to be dealt with in the UK. Britain currently exports about half the plastic collected for recycling and investment and jobs go overseas. Investment in domestic recycling infrastructure is essential to ensure a ban on exports delivers both jobs and environmental improvement. Current policy reforms are key to unlocking this major jobs and growth opportunity.

“This report comes at a critical time, as concerns about environment, climate and the economy are growing. We are delighted to have given evidence to the Committee and trust that their work will help generate the investment we so sorely need.”