by Caitlin Hoyland, GLOBUS Correspondent
It is comforting to know that, according to the UK government’s records, just under half of our plastic waste is recycled, almost matching Germany, the world’s recycling champion. This means that only 0.8% of the UK’s waste can be attributed to plastic waste, an especially impressive statistic when compared to the United States’ meagre 8.7%.
No wonder Prime Minister, Boris Johnson boasted in 2019 that Britain will “continue to lead the world in tackling plastics pollution, both in the UK and internationally”.
Except, the rubbish statistics listed on the UK Government’s website are exactly that…rubbish.
Purported recycling statistics featuring on the government website belie reality: a proportion of allegedly recycled plastics end up emitting large amounts of greenhouse gases in waste dumps overseas.
Countries with high GDPs, like the US, UK, and France, opt to export their plastic waste. The reasons being it is cheaper than extending their own recycling infrastructure; reduces the amount of space they have to use for landfill; and allows these governments to publish purportedly gleaming recycling statistics.
Simply put, exporting plastic waste is a systemic and strategic operation placating rich countries from proactively tackling their lamentable plastic consumption. It is waste colonialism.
Because of the inadequacy of the recycling infrastructure in the UK and its inability to cope with the astronomical amount of plastic waste the country produces, the government permits the exportation and dumping of more than half of its plastic waste. The government boasts that in 2020, 1,174,000 tonnes of plastic waste was recycled, however, the caveat is that an underwhelming 486,000 tonnes were actually recycled in the UK. The remaining 58% was sent abroad to be “recycled”, with the largest proportion of this waste ending up in Turkey. With over half of the exported plastic materials being “not-easily-recycled”, combined with the mismanagement of the recycling companies the UK trades with, a significant proportion of UK plastic waste ends up putrefying in waste dumps (99% in the case of Turkey!).
This is the legal and political management of waste. But there are more covert ways in which plastic waste is disposed of.
Open dumping is the illegal dumping of waste in unregulated areas. Prohibited because of its devastating social and environmental implications – spreading disease, killing wildlife, and harming the surrounding communities- it is a widely practised waste disposal method, of which the UK government is, albeit indirectly, complicit. For example, just last year, the BBC discovered British plastic waste that had been open dumped and incinerated in Adana, Turkey.
According to INTERPOL, over two-and-a-half thousand tonnes of UK waste was openly dumped in Poland in 2018. “Coincidentally”, a fire broke out on the illegal dumping site, meaning that the waste could not be repatriated to the UK. INTERPOL states that ‘This was one of some 80 waste fires in Poland in 2018 most of which are suspected to have been deliberate to destroy evidence.’
Also in 2018, Greenpeace investigations found British waste dumped illegally across Malaysia. This included: ‘local authority recycling bags from London and Essex, as well as packaging for Fairy dishwasher tablets, Flora butter and Heinz baked beans’. Refusing to become “the world’s garbage dump”, as phrased by Malaysia’s Environmental Minister Yeo Bee Yin, the Malaysian government in 2019 returned 150 shipping containers of illegally imported waste, of which 42 belonged to Britain.
It must be considered that the trading of recyclable waste is a useful source of employment opportunities for the countries to which waste is sent. For example, in Turkey, recycling plants hire twenty times the number of people as landfill sites. However, the exponential growth of the plastic recycling industry in countries around the world is extremely worrying. After all, there is a cap on how many times plastic can be recycled; it is inevitable that any plastic produced will, at some point, end up in a landfill (or the sea). Incinerating plastic waste immediately releases greenhouse gas emissions. Even plastic kept in landfills releases carbon into the atmosphere. This plastic ends up in our water systems and in our food chains, having leached into the oceans.
Essentially, regardless of where the plastic waste ends up, the impact of this material is felt globally.
In the short term, however, the adverse implications of plastic pollution overtly impacts marginalised communities living in close proximity to (legal or illegal) plastic landfill sites. Extensive research has concluded that people living near a landfill site are at a greater risk of suffering from medical conditions like asthma, cholera, and tuberculosis. Contaminated drinking water as a result of the emitted pollutants from landfill sites is also attributed to causing central nervous system defects, cancer, and leukaemia. Of course, the COVID-19 pandemic has seen plastic waste skyrocket by an estimated tenfold. The short-term implications of this waste will be felt most by vulnerable communities; this is yet another way in which the pandemic has exacerbated global injustices
. Hence, “waste colonialism”.
The problem here is not so much the trading of waste, but the actual use of a material that has such devastating implications for people and the environment. Labelling something as “recyclable” illudes that it is okay for the production and widespread usage of plastic. Consumers unwittingly place their spent plastic in a recycling bin, trusting that it will actually be recycled. In reality, there is no guarantee that it ever will be recycled.
Recycling is simply governmentally endorsed green-washing.
Header image from Pexels Free Photos