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UK plastic waste illegally dumped and burned in Turkey

A Greenpeace investigation has found evidence that plastic waste sent from the UK for recycling is being dumped and burned across southern Turkey.

plastic waste on a beachExaminers of 10 sites across the Adana province in Turkey found piles of plastic waste dumped illegally by the roadside, in fields or spilling into waterways and floating downstream.

Plastic packaging and bags from seven of the top 10 UK supermarkets were found at multiple sites, alongside packaging for COVID-19 antigen tests amid bags of UK plastic, which indicates that the waste is less than a year old.

The findings have been presented in a Greenpeace report, Trashed, published today (17 May), which highlights the UK’s current overproduction of plastic and provides evidence for the illegal waste exports to Turkey.

This latest report follows findings from the Environment Audit Committee (EAC) which found the UK to be the worst offender for illegal e-waste exports in Europe.

Turkey has seen a huge rise in the amount of waste coming from the UK and elsewhere in Europe in recent times, with exports of plastic waste from the UK to Turkey increasing by a factor of 18 between 2016 and 2020.

It is now the top destination for UK plastic waste, having received over 200,000 tonnes of plastic waste from the UK in 2020.

Nihan Temiz Ataş, Biodiversity Projects Lead from Greenpeace Mediterranean, based in Turkey, said: “As this new evidence shows, plastic waste coming from the UK to Turkey is an environmental threat not an economic opportunity.

“Uncontrolled imports of plastic waste do nothing but increase the problems existing in Turkey's own recycling system.

“Around 241 truckloads of plastic waste come to Turkey every day from across Europe and it overwhelms us. As far as we can see from the data and the field, we continue to be Europe's largest plastic waste dump.”

In late 2020, the Turkish Government announced that a ban on importing many types of plastic waste would come into effect from 1 January 2021.

Despite this ban, the amount of plastic waste from the UK continues to increase, with UK trade data showing that in January 2021 the UK sent more plastic waste to Turkey than it did the previous January and in February 2021, the UK’s plastic waste exports to Turkey were more than double the previous February, up from 14,000 tonnes to 30,000 tonnes.

The findings of Greenpeace’s latest report have called into question how much of this plastic waste has been correctly recycled.

Sam Chetan-Welsh, Political Campaigner at Greenpeace UK, said: “The UK’s current approach to plastic waste exports is part of a history of environmental racism carried out through dumping toxic or hazardous pollutants.

“The impacts of plastic waste exports on human health and the environment are disproportionately felt by communities of colour. These communities have fewer political, economic, and legal means to oppose toxic dumping, so companies can act with impunity.

“As long as the UK avoids properly managing and reducing its own waste, it will be upholding this structural inequality. The UK Government wouldn’t allow other countries’ waste to be dumped here, so why is it acceptable to make it another country’s problem?”

Greenpeace’s Trashed report concludes by calling on the UK Government to ‘take control’ of the situation by enacting the Environment Bill and using its powers to ban all plastic waste exports, including an immediate ban on mixed plastic waste to OECD countries like Turkey.

Greenpeace has also said the UK Government must go ahead with its plans to improve recycling infrastructure made under the 2018 Waste and Resources strategy, which is currently undergoing consultation.

Nina Schrank, Senior Plastics Campaigner at Greenpeace UK, added: “It is appalling to see plastic from UK supermarkets' shelves ending up 3,000 kilometres away in burning piles on the side of Turkish roads.

“The Government needs to take control of this problem. They can start by banning plastic waste exports and reducing single-use plastic by 50 per cent by 2025. This would not only allow the UK to end waste exports, but would also mean less plastic going into incineration and landfill.”