MPs and Sheffield researchers call for ban on all plastic waste exports

Scientists and MPs are calling for a ban on the export of all plastic waste exports from the UK by 2027.

Plastic waste on a beach
  • A new report from MPs and researchers from the University of Sheffield calls for a ban on the export of all plastic waste by 2027 
  • The UK could save 200,000 tonnes of single-use plastic packaging waste every single year, if replaced with a reusable alternative
  • Around 60 per cent of the UK’s 2.5 million tonnes of plastic packaging waste it creates annually is currently exported - Turkey is the main destination for this waste

Researchers and MPs are calling for a ban on the export of all plastic waste exports from the UK by 2027.

Researchers from the University of Sheffield have contributed to a new report from the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee which aims to reduce the country's contribution to global plastic waste pollution. 

Experts are calling for a ban to be part of a national strategy to use less plastic, re-use more of it, and boost recycling.

An estimated 380 million tonnes of plastic is produced worldwide every year. The enduring nature of plastic products – often designed for single use - has led to a major waste issue, particularly involving plastic packaging for consumer and industrial goods. 

The UK exports around 60 per cent of the 2.5 million tonnes of plastic packaging waste it creates. Turkey is the main destination for this waste. The committee heard alarming accounts of British plastic waste being dumped and burned in Turkey, causing irreversible and shocking environmental and human health impacts.

Professor Rachael Rothman, from the University of Sheffield’s Grantham Centre for Sustainable Futures, was one of the experts to give evidence to the committee. She said: “There are eight billion tonnes of plastic in the world - to put that into context, it weighs more than every single person who has ever existed. If things don’t change, this is expected to reach 40 billion tonnes by 2050.

“Plastic itself is not the problem, but plastic waste is. Reducing plastic waste is key - to do that we should reduce the amount we use in the first place and try to reuse any plastic we do need as much as possible. That goes for other materials too, not just plastic. Anything left should be recycled. 

“If we want to be a world leader in sustainability, we must act like a leader and set an example for other countries to follow - this starts by ending the practice of shipping our plastic waste abroad for other countries to deal with.”

In addition to being called as a witness to appear before the committee, Professor Rothman also provided written evidence to the report alongside Sarah Greenwood, Dr Rorie Parsons, and Professor Thomas Webb from the University’s Grantham Centre. 

The evidence highlighted that if 20 per cent of single-use plastic packaging was replaced with a reusable alternative, the UK could save 200,000 tonnes of single-use plastic packaging waste every single year.

In light of these accounts, and the pervasive problem of plastic pollution contaminating the environment, the committee made a number of recommendations. In a first step towards a more circular economy for plastics, the committee recommends restricting the amount of plastic that can be exported from the UK, then banning exports completely. The committee also wants the government to step up the enforcement of existing rules to prevent criminal gangs illegally exporting and dumping UK-produced waste. The report said waste crime had become a “low risk, high reward endeavour”. 

The committee also made wider, longer-term recommendations aimed at reducing the UK’s consumption of plastics, increasing domestic recycling capacity by boosting investment in the sector, and creating a more circular economy to reduce how much waste the UK produces. These are essential steps if the ban on exporting plastic waste is to be deliverable.

The Chair of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, Sir Robert Goodwill MP, said: “For far too long the UK has been reliant on exporting its waste overseas and making it someone else’s problem. Plastic waste originating in our country is being illegally dumped and burned abroad. The UK must not be a part of this dirty trade and that’s why we are calling for a total ban on waste plastic exports.

“To do this we need to reduce how much plastic we use and consume, invest in greater capacity to reprocess our own waste and support research into new technologies and materials. If the UK takes a lead in this, we have the potential to create hundreds of new jobs and build a multi-billion pound waste management industry.”

To achieve its goals, the committee made several recommendations to the government in its report, titled The price of plastic: ending the toll of plastic waste. These included:  

  • Calling for a ban on all exports of UK plastic waste by the end of 2027. The government should publish a roadmap on how to achieve this by March 2023.
  • Encouraging greater adherence to the ‘waste hierarchy’ which stipulates, first, reducing the volume of waste by eliminating unnecessary use or packaging, then encouraging re-use of it, before turning to recycling. The committee recommends that government targets are reformed to more closely follow this waste hierarchy - and aim for all plastic waste to be recycled, re-used or composted by 2042.
  • Expediting the rollout of ‘Extended Producer Responsibility’, which will see producers of plastic packaging pay fees on the packaging products they put on the market.  This should incentivise them to reduce the amount of packaging they produce and use more easily recyclable materials. The committee also recommended that the scheme is applied to more producers - covering all businesses that put more than 1 tonne of packaging on the market - by 2030.
  • Creating a taskforce to explore ways of encouraging greater uptake of ‘re-use and refill’ schemes – such as those where customers use their own containers to fill up with a product. These could include possible charges on single-use products, and initiatives aimed at encouraging public awareness and uptake of re-use and refill schemes.
  • Confirming its support for the Plastic Packaging Tax which is applied to products that contain less than 30 per cent of plastic from recycled sources. This tax is expected to increase the demand for recycled plastic material – and so encourage investment in the recycling sector. This 30 per cent level should vary according to the needs of different sectors and should be increased over time.
  • Using some of the income raised by the Extended Producer Responsibility and Plastic Packaging Tax schemes to invest in recycling infrastructure and to support research in technologies that can tackle hard to recycle plastics, such as plastic films.

A transcript of Professor Rothman’s evidence to MPs can be found here.

The written evidence from Sarah Greenwood, Dr Rorie Parsons, Professor Thomas Webb and Professor Rachael Rothman can be found here.


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