UK importing rubbish from other countries

Filed in Waste News by on June 15, 2009 12 Comments
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Importing and exporting recyclable waste in Britain?

Importing and exporting recyclable waste in Britain?

Just as you thought things were getting better in the world of reduce, reuse, recycle, a news story comes along to knock you sideways. I don’t want to believe this one, especially with all the great stories we followed last week about Hilary Benn’s War on Waste and with my excitement about the upcoming WRAP’s Recycle Week.

But deliver waste news we must. I’ll be interested to hear your thoughts on this one. Does it make you feel helpless, annoyed, angry, like giving up or even more determined to lead a zero waste lifestyle?

Here’s the rubbish news from the Telegraph:

“In recent years councils have tried to increase recycling rates by introducing fortnightly bin collections, piloting bin taxes and even offering money off Marks and Spencer underwear.

But still Britain recycles just over a third of waste, with the rest going to landfill where it is heavily taxed. Even that which is collected for recycling is so mixed and therefore of such low quality that more than half of it is sent abroad to be sorted by cheap labour.

The lack of high quality material is forcing the home-grown recycling industry to import glass bottles, old tin cans and ship loads of paper from other countries in Europe just to keep factories going.

According to industry representatives, last year the UK imported 88,000 tonnes of paper, 65,000 tonnes of glass, 40,000 tonnes of aluminium and at least 2,000 tonnes of plastic.

Industry insiders said the system is “unsustainable”, while environmental campaigners are concerned shipping recycling around the world is not good for climate change….

Read the rest of the article by Louise Gray, Environment Correspondent at the Telegraph.

About the Author ()

I am a long time supporter of the Green and Sustainable lifestyle. After being caught in the Boscastle floods in 2004, our family begun a journey to respect and promote the importance of Earth's fragile ecosystem, that focussed on reducing waste. Inspired by the beauty and resourcefulness of this wonderful planet, I have published numerous magazine articles on green issues and the author of four books.

Comments (12)

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  1. John Costigane says:

    Hi Mrs Green,

    There have been a lot of scare stories in the Tory press many of which have been proved wrong. There may be some truth in this but it would not be such a big surprise in the light of some poor recycling performances.

    The situation is a temporary one, since the issue of sustainable recycling has not been addressed, as you or I see it, from the Zero Waste perspective. Where does the fault lie?

    We have no choice but to make recycling work. That message needs to be taken on-board by government and councils in particular. Nothing less than best practice, countrywide, will allow a high recycling figure to be achieved.

    My view is to promote more household participation by incentives, eg shopping vouchers, as planned in Windsor & Maidenhead. Zero Waste enthusiasts will not benefit much from this as Reduce/Reuse is just as important for us. The general population is the real focus.

  2. Mr Green says:

    The UK now recycles 35 per cent of its own rubbish, or 8.7 million tonnes, well below the average of other European countries. Many local authorities are more interested in ticking boxes, achieving targets and maintaining votes. I doubt there are many councils who conscientiously adhere to maintaining recycling quality, once they can demonstrate they have ‘collected’ the recycling material.

    For example, I have seen myself, the local glass and tins recycling lorry outside our home, where operators have clearly mixed my carefully separated recycling in the lorry collectors. They seem more interested in racing through the job, than maintaining separation of materials.

    Maybe the problem is in the collection methods and better checks should be made to maintain integrity of materials. Ah, but that means more money and investment.

    Ultimately, we need a strong message from government that recycling is an imperative that must be taken seriously with significant incentives and penalties for local authorities.

  3. Poppy says:

    As power shifts so often in local councils and all are keen to be the ‘nice’ guys, I believe directive must come from government. No ifs, ands or maybes, just a ruling that councils must adhere to.

    I can’t see that happening however, either with the current lot (who are most likely on their way out), or the next lot who have so far only played lip service to the green agenda.

  4. John Costigane says:

    Hi Mr Green,

    At LetsRecycle today there is good and bad news.

    First the good, Excellent figures of 60%+ for recycling performance has been provisionally achieved for 3 District Councils in 2008/9. These top achievers are : Staffordshire Moorlands, Cotswold and East Linsey. A host of others are just short of the 60%, with food waste collections a big factor. Such best practice must be the aim for the whole country, especially with the renewed EfW (Incineration) strategy announced also on the site.

    This is the bad news. They are talking up incineration as the ‘known technology’ for municipal waste treatment. The aim is still to ‘rush to burn’ and we should be ever vigilant against this unwanted, unsustainable practice.

  5. I live in East Lindsey and the figure usually quoted at the HWRC is closer to 75%.

    So for all their faults I’m pleased that my local council are one of the top performers.

  6. John Costigane says:

    @maisie dalziel: Hi Maisie, Your council is third best in the country with 60% recycling according to year end figures. There was a statement that 60% was a glass ceiling for recycling. To exceed that total shows up the faulty thinking in some agencies who see EfW as the ‘green energy’ answer to all our problems.

    Such good council performance can help force incineration off the menu altogether. Let us hope that the government promote this type of performance in every council. To do otherwise would be totally wrong.

  7. It is articles such as the one that you’ve highlighted that do the utmost damage to any cynics that exist in society. Don’t get me wrong, it is right to ask questions, but when something as short as this is put out there, there is no room for context.

    For example, regarding the figure quoting Britain recycling just over a third of its waste, with the rest going to landfill, I’d question the source of the statistics and whether garden\kitchen waste has been taken into account. Often from a statistical perspective recycling data is quoted separately from the latter, but when combined push the figures higher.

    Living in Suffolk, the majority of our pre-sorted plastic recycling goes to China, shipped out through the ports in our region. I’d agree that it is not the most environmentally effective when you consider the transport, but it does make sense when you consider that is where the technology exists and where the demand for the materials. I’ve been told that ships need ballast and sending over filled containers with recyclates also provides that function, replacing the needs for other materials. I am not an expert in shipping and am relying on information from others, but if anyone more knowledgable can add to this I would be grateful.

    It will be more sustainable to recycle more in this country but the Telegraph article does not mention WRAP’s development in this area and the funding it is making to increase recycling facilities in the UK.

    It really does frustrate me when the media reports small snippets of figures and facts, without showing the whole picture. It is only when looking at that can the public decide. However, even then…you’d probably need a whole encyclopedia to explain the complexities and economics that support the current recycling model and the technologies that are being developed to take us into the future.

    Rubbish news? Yep I’d most definitely agree with that! 😀

  8. Layla says:

    Well, I sort of read things along these lines before, so I wasn’t terribly surprised – actually if you guys recycle 30% of stuff you’re better than average Slovenian councils!! 🙁

    I can see how it can be disheartening for cycnics, but it all lies on focus & presentation of article: yes, do tell of the shortcomings of the system, then appeal to people & councils to make it better!!

    Our recyclables are often of sorta bad quality too, so Slovenian paper factories also prefer foreign better sorted materials, at least that is what we found in the press (I’m still to contact them directly!)

    What is the solution? Telling people AND councils how to recycle BETTER & organize it better – not just lament over bad councils & bad articles – write better ones & actively help councils do it better!! 🙂
    That is something I’d love to do here in Slovenia, & I know it’s not easy, with all the confusion regarding recyclables.. & it’s great you guys are already doing it across the ‘pond’..!!

    Local waste management companies & officials often don’t have a clue about all this, how to make it better.. I agree it would be their job to get informed & inform others, one must see they also have other stuff to think about, & actually any citizen incentive can often be appreciated & encouraged!

    For example, I was amazed how in Wales, in St Arvans etc, *the community* organized the recycling to get better!! People realized they wanted better options & went for it!! Really inspiring!!
    The waste management companies may be well thankful of any news where to be able to give stuff into recycling/reuse for free instead of having to pay for expensive ‘thermal treatment’! (even where there are incinerators!!) Old bad landfills were cheap, but at least here in Slovenia, the new incinerator has 3x more expensive costs!! so waste management companies are really interested in people recycling more!!

    & even *with* incinerators, it’s more toxics in the air if it’s not all pre-sorted well, so in any case the efforts of zero waste enthusiasts are really important!!

  9. Layla says:

    Oh, & apparently there’s new plastic bottle recycling plants being built in Wales..

    it would be great to know more about the possible toxics from those plants.. (as some recycling procedures can be iffy) in principle it’s better to have less transport miles.. if the facilities are good & emissions as low as possible.. (if you compare incinerator & recycling plant – bith have emissions, at least in recycling plant you get new stuff out too!!)

    Reduce & reuse is even more important than ever, with the news about recycling still having ‘baby problems’ – of course any new things have initial problems! People need to learn how to do this properly, like it’s the norm in some other European countries!! it’s not something that can happen overnight! with effort on all levels, it CAN be done!!

    just imagine Winston Churchill giving up just because ‘all Germans haven’t been shot down yet’ in the 1st or 2nd year of World War II?? I mean – duh?

  10. Mrs Green says:

    @John Costigane: Incentive is a good motivator John, and I hope things change. I was reading some of the WRAP reports this week about increased mixed plastic recycling. I need to look further into it and see what they are suggesting. I especially need to get up to speed on incineration ideas that you mentioned on Lets Recycle.

    @Mr Green: Mr G; I find it very difficult to see sorted items being thrown into one container. You can understand why some householders do not bother to recycle at all. it Seems, on the fact of it, to be a complete waste of time.

    @Poppy: Worrying, isn’t it Poppy. To me, this feels such an important issue, but to ‘them in power’ it seems to be a tiny, insignificant thing. TIme will tell …

    @maisie dalziel: I’ve always felt your council was good, Maisie, as you seem to have a lot of good services around there. Perhaps we all need to move to where you are LOL!

    @Almost Mrs Average: Hi Mrs A – I agree that stories like this pick and choose facts and turn it into a sensationalist piece. That is the name of the game with media stories; they have to shock us otherwise we don’t register any more. I’m pleased to see WRAP are pushing to increase recycling facilities in the UK; that is the way forward imo.

    @Layla: Hi Layla, you’re right; the message needs to be positive and inspiring, not doom and gloom. That is something we always try and promote on myzerowaste – we keep an upbeat attitude 95% of the time otherwise people feel overwhelmed and helpless about the situation. That’s one reason I don’t have a TV or buy newspapers – I can get away from all the ‘bad news’ and just keep in my own world!

  11. John Costigane says:

    @Mrs Green: WRAP are always pushing the boundaries, Mrs Green. The PRFs would streamline plastic sorting. Money is the restricting factor for them, making them rely on motivating businesses to join-in.

    The ClubRecycle Forum is a more recent interest as the News section is the main focus. There was no Zero Waste perspective in the topics and comments which meant EfW, and associated PFIs (Private Finance Initiatives) was promoted unchallenged. These tend to be secret deals with councils to rubber stamp the incinerator projects. The local public have to take various actions to get involved, at all.

    Debate about the issue is worthwhile. The economic argument is that the 25 year PFI over-estimates waste volumes over the period giving a large capacity setup. With recycling improving and waste reducing generally, there will soon be insufficient material to burn, leaving excess capacity. Where 3 EfW sites are used initially, there may soon be only enough material for only 1 to work to capacity. This means 2 white elephants and a lot of wasted money. That is an extreme example but shows what might happen if many more incinerators are built.

    The mindset should not be – make enough waste to keep the EfW busy, but recycle/reduce to the max to limit waste. The latter is a sustainable option. Some incineration is already used and locals in Sheffield are finding their EfW taking on extra work to reach capacity. The locals are up-in-arms as you can imagine. It is a big issue with many aspects.

  12. John Costigane says:

    Hi Again Mrs Green,

    Further to the Sheffield EfW, the plan is to replace the current one, which is working full-out on a wider source of waste, with a bigger alternative. This is one side-effect of difficulty in opening new sites, just make active EfW sites bigger. This is tough news for the locals involved.

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