TV exposé sparks recycling backlash

A television documentary suggesting the waste disposal industry inhabited a murky world of dodgy deals and devil-may-care dumping has sparked a flurry of angry rebuttals and clarifications.

The BBC Real Story show aired last week purported to show recycling put out by conscientious householders was in fact being shipped off and dumped in developing countries.

While the problem of illegal waste shipments is well-known, and all too common, within the industry, some fear the show was scare-mongering which could put the public off recycling.

It also seems to have inspired regulators to reiterate to local authorities the importance of ensuring that contractors are disposing of their recycling legally.

Following the BBC documentary, the Environment Agency issued a statement saying it is currently investigating 11 cases involving the alleged illegal export of waste.

Barbara Young, chief executive of the Environment Agency said: "Many of us do our bit for the environment by recycling as much of our rubbish as we can.

"Its absolutely essential that we can be sure that when we put our glass and paper into the recycling box that it does end up being properly recycled.

"There is a legitimate and growing market abroad for recyclables, but there are rules to ensure that it's done properly. We will continue to work with Government and industry to raise awareness of the rules and ensure that workable standards are in place, but local authorities and waste managers need to check that waste collected for recycling is dealt with properly."

Under the rules, it's illegal to export waste for disposal but it can sent abroad for recycling.

The maximum penalty for exporting waste illegally is an unlimited fine or up to 2 years in prison.

The EA said in its statement that it was tackling illegal waste exports by:

  • Targeted enforcement at UK ports including the detention and inspection of more than 350 vehicles and containers.

  • Working closely with enforcers around the world including in Indonesia and Hong Kong to share intelligence.

  • Informing industry and local authorities on the rules, what they need to do to meet them and what the EA will do if they don't.

  • Auditing the standards at recycling facilities in England and Wales to check where their recyclables are going for export that they are dealt with properly.

    Baroness Young said: "We don't want to stop legitimate recycling but we will come down hard on anyone we catch breaking the rules."

    Meanwhile the Waste & Resources Action Programme (WRAP) took pains to persuade the public not to give up on recycling.

    Welcoming the EA's announcement about its ongoing investigations into illegal exports, Jennie Price, WRAP's chief executive, said: "There is no doubt that when rubbish is actually recycled, there are very real environmental benefits.

    "Recycling conserves raw materials and saves energy, and also reduces our reliance on landfill sites, where rotting rubbish emits methane, a powerful greenhouse gas."

    "Recycling is one simple way in which we can all make a difference, and more and more people are doing it regularly.

    "Local councils and the Environment Agency need to play their part by making sure that what is put out for recycling genuinely gets recycled.

    "In this way, we can all use the growing number of recycling services available to us with confidence."

    This is particularly important as the UK's recycling performance is steadily improving, and we are now recycling almost a quarter of our household waste.

    WRAP also pointed out that there are many recycling plants in the UK, reprocessing millions of tonnes of material every year.

    In recent years, our ability to use recycled materials in the UK has grown rapidly. For example:

  • All the newsprint manufactured in the UK is now made from 100% recycled paper.
  • Almost all the glass we recycle is used by British companies to produce new bottles and jars, as well as many other useful products.

    By Sam Bond

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