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Plastics recycling industry under investigation for leaking pollution into rivers and oceans

British export firms claim to have shipped tens of thousands more tonnes of waste overseas than recorded by HM Customs

Josh Gabbatiss
Science Correspondent
Friday 19 October 2018 18:56 BST
Wave of floating plastic in Dominican Republic shows extent of ocean pollution

Britain's plastics recycling industry has been accused of leaking pollution into oceans and massively exaggerating waste figures. As a result it is facing an investigation by the Environment Agency (EA).

Allegations have emerged in recent months concerning the involvement of organised criminals in the multimillion pound industry, as well as widespread fraud.

Among the charges levelled at recycling companies are claims that plastic waste from the UK is not being recycled and is instead entering rivers and seas.

There is also a suggestion that illegal shipments of plastic are being sent to east Asian countries, and that firms are making money by claiming to transport masses of material that does not actually exist.

In total, British export companies say they have shipped over 35,000 tonnes more plastic abroad than is recorded by HM Customs, according to a report in The Guardian.

Six UK exporters have already had their licences suspended or cancelled, but there are concerns that firms that have consistently shipped contaminated waste are still being allowed to operate.

In response to this worrying trend, the EA has formed a team of investigators to deal with complaints and get to the bottom of the issues raised.

Companies can currently meet their recycling obligations by purchasing “plastic export recovery notes” (Perns) from exporters.

However, a report by the National Audit Office (NAO) in July concluded that the current system was open to abuse by companies and was not sufficient to ensure British waste was being recycled.

“In the last few months the customs figures on waste plastic are lower than the figures given to the Environment Agency by the exporters – suggesting more people are shipping stuff they claim is waste plastic in order to get the Pern price,” a source told The Guardian.

“Perns are running at around £60-70 a tonne, so that encourages all sorts of people to pursue the export market, and the question is whether the enforcement is strong enough to detect whether this is actually plastic waste being shipped out.”

As it stands, at least 100 containers of plastic waste are shipped out from British ports to foreign countries every day.

Since China decided to ban imports of “foreign garbage” last year, the UK has switched to other nations such as Malaysia and Poland as destinations for around half of its packaging waste.

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The UK government has been vocal in efforts to stop waste entering the world’s oceans, but experts think the majority of plastic ending up there comes from developing countries with poor waste management infrastructure.

By relying on some of these countries as destinations for waste shipments, there is a danger that the UK is exporting its ocean plastic problem overseas.

To make matters worse, some of these nations have already begun to go cold on UK imports amid concerns about contaminated shipments and lack of capacity.

Previous head of the EA Sir James Bevan has described waste crime as the “new narcotics”, costing the UK £1bn every year.

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