by Angus Crawford
The boy was probably just a teenager. Digging through plastic bags lying on the side of the road, he looked for bottles to sell.
Among the rubbish were plastic bags from some of the UK's biggest supermarkets, packages of cheese, ham and meat hamburgers.
Our investigation in March 2020 in the city of Adana in southern Turkey found that although plastic that had been carefully sorted and sorted by UK households was being sent to Turkey for recycling, it was being disposed of and burned.
Now Ankara is fed up – as of today, July 2, almost all imports of plastic waste are expected to be banned.
This leaves the UK with a real problem.
Last year, the UK sent more plastic packaging waste to Turkey than to any other country. More than 200,000 tons, or 30% of all these exports, according to the Environmental Agency's national waste packaging database.
That means 30 containers a day full of plastic waste now need a new home. The UK, however, does not have enough recycling capacity to handle it on its own.
“The alternatives are not obvious,” says Phil Conran of 360 Environmental consultancy.
China, which used to be the world's biggest plastic importer, closed its doors in 2017. And Malaysia, traditionally another big recipient, is now more regulated.
Phil Conran points out that "the UK has an unfortunate history of exporting poor quality plastic waste."
Simon Ellin of the Recycling Association says most exports are compliant but admits: “Our industry is hampered by a small minority of illegal operators who take advantage of a UK regulatory system with few resources and lack of systems export transparent.”
Eastern European Options
In the first three months of this year, Turkey took 49% of all exports – Poland was in second place and the Netherlands in third. But these two countries would have to more than double their imports to make up the difference.
And some UK waste shipped to the Netherlands is actually incinerated, and an import tax on waste for burning now makes it less attractive.
Other Eastern European countries may also be preparing to receive material from the UK, but domestic recycling rates remain low.
“The UK government may try to continue pushing our plastic problem to other countries in the short term, but the writing is on the wall for waste export,” said Megan Randles, a Greenpeace UK political activist.
The government believes that plastic waste can be legally and safely sent abroad for recycling. But a spokesperson for the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) said: “The UK must deal with more of its waste at home, which is why we are committed to banning the export of plastic waste to non-OECD countries. down in illegal waste exports. "
The Environmental Agency claims that, in the past 18 months, it has stopped 160 containers of illegal plastic waste from leaving the country.
So if more of our plastic stays in the UK, what will happen to it?
The UK's recycling capacity is still only 75% of what was being shipped to Turkey. Therefore, in the short term, there is likely to be an accumulation of waste.
Phil Conran says this has its problems.
"Excessive inventories can ultimately lead to material being landfilled or abandoned if expected markets do not materialize."
But there is a third possibility: incineration – including in waste power plants. In this process, energy is recovered in the form of heat or electricity.
More than 40% of household waste in England is currently burned – of those around 8% is made of plastic.
Simon Ellin of the Recycling Association says it's a short-term solution. "Some materials will need to go down the waste hierarchy and be burned with the recovered energy for electricity generation."
Megan Randles of Greenpeace does not agree. “We cannot throw away or burn to get out of our plastics crisis. We need a legally binding reduction in the production of single-use plastic”
Turkey's ban could lead to more recycling in the UK. Currently, Defra estimates that 46% of plastic waste is recovered or recycled.
The government is planning a new recycling rate for plastic producers and wants all packaging to be made of at least 30% recycled material by 2022.
The recycling industry is expanding its capacity. Construction of what the developer describes as the UK's first plastic hydrogen plant is due to start this year in Cheshire, and plans have been unveiled for similar plants across the country.
Also later this year, one of the largest waste facilities in the country will be fully operational in Avonmouth, near Bristol.
It will burn non-recyclable household waste to power a plastic recycling plant and, in its first year, it is expected to take 1.6 billion bottles, jars, pots and trays.
But in the short term, there is fear that what the BBC found in Turkey may simply be duplicated elsewhere. This could be in Eastern Europe or Africa – or in our own backyards.