Every year, the UK uses double the amount of resources the UN suggests the earth can sustainably supply. This comes with a range of environmental impacts and a waste mountain we struggle to manage. Instead, we fall into that uncomfortably familiar pattern: ignore and offshore.
We import goods and export harm
We rely heavily on other countries to satisfy our material needs. Almost half of the emissions associated with UK consumption are generated abroad and nearly three quarters of the materials the UK uses come from beyond our borders. As businesses are not required to report emissions generated abroad, the true environmental costs of our consumption are hidden.
So far, the government’s decarbonisation strategy has ignored these impacts. The Green Finance Strategy recently promised to publish a call for evidence for businesses to report scope 3 (ie supply chain) emissions and when George Eustice was the environment minister, he suggested that looking at total consumption emissions “does make more sense”, but there is still no clear strategy to reduce them.
The UK is also heavily dependent on overseas facilities to deal with products at the end of life. Exporting ‘polluting’ waste to non-OECD countries is illegal under the Basel Convention, but we can still export our waste to be recycled and, in 2022, around half of the packaging waste that was counted here as recovered or recycled was, in fact, exported. The reality, of course, is that waste exports at the volume we are creating overwhelm the recycling capacity of recipient countries, often leading to mismanagement and landfill overseas. Leakage into the environment is common. This reality directly undermines our commitments under the Basel Convention and creates a false sense of progress towards domestic recycling targets. Despite this, the UK continues to export waste prolifically. The UK was one of the top five plastic waste exporters in the world in 2020 and, compared to European counterparts, we were the second highest exporter of used textiles and the worst offender for illegally shipping ewaste abroad, with as much as 40 per cent of our e-waste processed in this way.
At the heart of these stats lies an even more alarming truth: we are not just exporting waste, but offshoring harm to the environment and vulnerable communities. The Mediterranean coast is famous for its brilliant blue sea, olives and wine, yet M&S bacon and Quavers wrappers are among the hundreds of thousands of tonnes of plastic washing up on that coastline. Off the coast of Accra in Ghana, a main destination for used textiles, clothing ‘tentacles’ containing thousands of items can be found every three metres. In terms of health risks, ewaste is often processed without equipment, exposing workers to toxic chemicals that can lead to developmental problems. Carrying heavy bales of plastic or clothing often leads to physical injury, including irreversible spine damage. The list goes on.
The government is turning a blind eye
The limited scope of regulation and lack of monitoring and enforcement mean that we are far from solving these problems. The government committed to banning plastic waste exports to non-OECD countries, and will consult on the matter this summer, but this partial ban won’t deliver what is needed to stop us exporting pollution. OECD countries such as Turkey, where there have been extensive reports of pollution, will continue to receive our mountains of plastic waste. And other OECD recipients of our waste (such as the Netherlands) are increasingly exporting it on to non-OECD countries. The Turkish government, among others, has introduced plastic import bans but these have had minimal impact. Rather than wait until recipient countries introduce their own restrictions, we should take responsibility at home with a coherent plan to reduce our consumption in the first place, increase recycling and limit exports.
The government also needs to do a lot more to improve the monitoring and enforcement of waste processing. The Environment Agency’s national survey concluded that waste crime is “endemic” in the UK. A conservative estimate suggested 400 kt of waste was exported illegally in 2021, equivalent to the weight of almost 40 Eiffel Towers. While funding to tackle all types of waste crime has increased in the past few years, the Environment Agency and other organisations are still under prepared to deal with it: estimates suggest the budget for addressing waste crime is less than three per cent of its estimated total cost to the economy. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has acknowledged that existing metrics don’t provide a comprehensive enough assessment of what’s being done to eliminate the problem.
Solutions should start with a resource reduction target
The fairest and most effective way to deal with waste is not to produce it in the first place. A resource reduction target that underpins a move towards a circular economy would help to keep the resources we already have circulating productively for as long as possible. Northern Ireland and Wales already have one and Scotland has suggested it could set one after its Circular Economy Bill passes. England needs to follow with one soon to make this a united mission for the country.
The target should be accompanied by policies that centre on environmental justice. The ‘polluter pays’ principle and the breakthrough loss and damage fund, agreed at the COP27 climate conference, are clear signals that those at the source of the climate crisis should be responsible for solving it and supporting those most affected by the damage it is causing. The same is true of the global waste problem. Unlike the devastating consequences of climate-related natural disasters, we can at least pinpoint and control waste. Policies such as extended producer responsibility – putting the onus on producers to physically manage or provide financial support to process the waste they produce – will start to embed greater justice and accountability.
The Westminster government’s resources and waste strategy notes that we shouldn’t be “offshoring waste for others to deal with”, and the Basel Convention is legally binding. But the compelling argument to finally turn the words into action is a moral one. We can’t in all conscience continue to use other countries as our dumping ground.