UK 'recycled' plastic found dumped in Turkey

A report from charity Greenpeace has found that much of the UK's plastic waste gets exported and dumped...
25 May 2021

Interview with 

Sam Chetan-Welsh, Greenpeace


Waste plastic bottles


We’ve remarked many times on this programme that the world is producing a lot of plastic waste. Millions of tonnes of it per year. And if you look at “plastic per person”, the UK is a major culprit. Now you might think - that’s OK - because we have recycling in the UK for plastic cartons and bottles! But - a new report from the charity Greenpeace says that’s not solving the problem - because a lot of it is being sent abroad. The report claims that well over half the plastic we think gets recycled is exported to countries like Turkey, where it mostly just gets dumped. When investigators travelled to Turkey, the scenes they discovered were truly shocking. Phil Sansom spoke to Greenpeace’s Sam Chetan-Welsh...

Sam - What we found is widespread and extensive evidence of UK supermarket plastic being dumped and burned in southwest Turkey. Tesco cheese packets, yoghurt pots... we found piles of it on fire, causing breathing problems for people in the local area; we found the rubbish leaking into watercourses, into streams, into rivers, and that will eventually make its way onto beaches and into the Mediterranean.

Phil - This is really shocking! How on earth is rubbish from UK supermarkets ending up by the side of the road, burning, in Turkey?

Sam - It's a complicated story. And I would give a big caveat that this is a very complicated system, it's very opaque, there's a lot of crime and illegality. The best that we as Greenpeace can surmise about what's happening is: say you've got your milk carton or your yoghurt pot. You wash it, you put it in the recycling. What happens then is it goes to a Materials Recovery Facility, and that's where it gets sorted into waste that's clean enough to actually be mechanically recycled again, or it gets baled up with what's called mixed plastic waste. What we found is that a lot of the clean stuff is going into big containers to be exported, and then mixed up with all of those mixed bales of plastic waste. And then it gets sent off to countries like Turkey.

Phil - Are UK companies paying the people to transport it to Turkey? Or they selling the waste so that the people in Turkey can get the good stuff out, and maybe make a buck off that?

Sam - There are layers of different people paying different types of money. The supermarkets, for example - they do pay, because they buy these certificates to kind of confirm, "hey, I'm Tesco, I'm Coke, I've made this much plastic this year so I need to pay for this amount to have it recycled." The issue with that is - there's no checks on the Turkish side, so it's a lot cheaper for companies through this chain to pay for it to be exported. At the Turkish side, for example, it will be bought by a company who can then make money off extracting the valuable material from these mixed, contaminated bales, and then essentially - on the hush hush - dumping all the rest of it.

Phil - Is that how this is going wrong, then - that people on the UK side are just abandoning their responsibility by giving away the plastic and saying, "all right, I'm sure you're going to recycle it." And the people who take it go, "sure thing, yeah, I'll do that," and then just do whatever they want.

Sam - Yeah. There's widespread fraud and corruption within the system, which is a big problem. But really Greenpeace's diagnosis is that at the heart, even if you improved enforcement and monitoring, you'd never really be able to fix the problem because there's just too much stuff. There's just too many containers. Too much of it is non-recyclable. No-one's got a plan to reduce the amount of waste that we produce in the first place, and that is how you stop this problem. We always think of it like - imagine a bathtub. If your bathtub was overflowing, you wouldn't grab a mop and bucket, you would turn the tap off. And that's what we need to do with the waste system - deal with the waste that's arising at the beginning of this process. That's the only way you're ever going to fix it.

Phil - Right, but how big is the problem? Is this just a small issue that's only part of the plastic that I'll put in my recycling bin, or is it the majority?

Sam - The UK exports two and a half Olympic-sized swimming pools of plastic waste every single day. That is not a small problem; that is something that we need to take responsibility for. Greenpeace estimates only 10% of all UK household plastic packaging actually gets recycled here in the UK. But look - ultimately, in our view, a kilogram of exports being dumped on another country, on a poorer country, on communities of colour to deal with, leaking into their watercourses, causing breathing problems in their local communities, is completely unacceptable - never mind two and a half Olympic-sized swimming pools of plastic every single day. This is something we need to take responsibility for. Government has been relying on this as part of their waste policy for such a long time. Plastic waste exports have increased by sixfold since 2002. And what we're saying is: stop dumping our waste on other countries, stop relying on this to deal with waste that we should be cleaning up ourselves, firstly by reducing the amount of plastic that we make and use here in the UK.

Phil - I mean, what am I to do as just someone who tries to recycle? Is this plastic recycling system broken?

Sam - What I really don't want people to take away from this is that they should stop recycling, that they should give up, that they should be cynical about the system, that they shouldn't keep doing their bit - because that habit is going to be crucial for us in the future, the habit of washing stuff and doing the right thing. But recycling on its own is never going to be able to solve this problem. We are simply making and using far too much stuff.


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