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Government must aim for ‘net zero’ plastic waste exports by 2030, say researchers


Britain could effectively hit net zero plastic packaging exports by 2030 according to new report

New report from Policy Connect calls for ‘bold national plastics plan’ to deliver step-change in UK approach to plastics recycling

The UK needs a “bold” plan to deal with its plastic waste if it wants to be seen by other countries as an environmental leader, according to a report released today by Policy Connect.

The think tank is calling on the government to release a “national plastics plan” that would see the UK process almost all its plastic waste domestically by 2030, a move researchers claim would cut pollution, boost investment in UK recycling infrastructure, and create thousands of green jobs.

Between 2010 and 2017, the UK exported 4.15 million tonnes of used plastic packaging to countries overseas, around two-thirds of the total collected. Shipping this waste to other countries, primarily in Asia, leads to extra greenhouse gas emissions, while processing countries also tend to have lower worker welfare standards and weaker environmental regulations, Policy Connect warned. Investigations have revealed exported plastic often ends up in landfill or as ocean pollution in processing countries.

“Britain’s used plastic export habit is costing our economy and the planet,” said Jonathan Shaw, chief executive of Policy Connect. “We can no longer sweep our plastic rubbish problem under other countries’ carpets. British consumers want to recycle more but our lack of UK reprocessing plants and circular policies are letting them down. We need a bold national plastics plan that we can all be proud of to protect the marine environment, to kick-start infrastructure investment and jobs, and to boost UK demand for recycled plastics.”

Policy Connect’s findings are backed by a cross-party group of 12 politicians, including chair of the Environmental Audit Committee Mary Creagh, Conservative peer Baroness Jenkin, Labour MP Anna McMorrin, and Conservative MP Rebecca Pow MP.

The report calls for plastic to become a circular industrial resource for the UK, and charts a path for the country to effectively become zero plastic waste in just 11 years.

Late last year the government released its Resources and Waste strategy, which set out government plans for reforming producer responsibility rules to require companies to pay more towards the collection and recycling of packaging they produce.

But today’s report argues government policy should go further, prioritising the domestic treatment of plastic packaging and targeting net zero exports of recyclable plastic packaging by 2030 at the latest.

Delivering on such a target would require a major build-out of UK recycling infrastructure, an overhaul of consumer packaging design, “bold” targets for local authorities and the creation of a dedicated Plastic Packaging Taskforce at the Environment Agency, Policy Connect said.

“This is the only way to ensure our plastic does not end up in the oceans and water courses. It is also an opportunity to create jobs and growth in the UK,” the paper argues. “As we seek to use more and more recycled content in our plastic packaging, having a ready stream of recycled material here in the UK will mean we can create a truly circular plastics economy.”

Defra was considering its response to the report at the time of going to press. 

Labour MP Mary Creagh welcomed the proposals. “I welcome the call for the UK to commit to a bold target of zero exports of plastic packaging by 2030,” she said. “Achieving this will require home-grown solutions such as implementing a Deposit Return Scheme by 2022 and applying a coffee cup levy as my Committee recommended. We can and must transition from exporting our plastic waste problem to growing our own solutions.”

The paper has also won the backing of big business. “In order to realise our collective ambitions of a circular economy, the UK must invest in long-term infrastructure development to facilitate waste recovery and recycling,” said Stefano Agostini, CEO of Nestlé UK & Ireland. “Such a strategy must support and strengthen market engagement, from both public and private sectors, whilst ensuring equitable coverage for all across the country. As a company, we welcome the Plastics Packaging Plan, and its call for a bold national policy framework to reduce ocean plastics and strengthen domestic infrastructure.”

Source: – Business Green