Sending the waste more than 10,000 miles is still more efficient in terms of carbon emissions than carting it off to landfill and using brand new materials to manufacture replacement goods.

These are the findings of a study carried out by the government-funded Waste & Recycling Action Plan (WRAP) and will be music to the ears of district councils the length and breadth of the land, under siege from local paper reporters keen to prove the ‘scandal’ of waste exports.

Shipping waste overseas is increasingly common the UK now collects more recycling than it has facilities to process domestically while rapidly growing economies such as China are hungry for raw materials.

Over the past decade, the export of waste paper and plastic bottles has increased tenfold.

Liz Goodwin, WRAP’s chief executive, said: “It may seem strange that transporting our unwanted paper and plastic bottles such a distance would actually be better for the environment but that is what the evidence from this study shows.

“As more and more of this material is being sold to China we wanted to know the impact that was having on the environment, and specifically whether the CO2 emissions from the transport outweighed the benefits of the recycling.

“Although this study is only part of the environmental impact story, it is clear that there are significant CO2 savings that can be made by shipping our unwanted paper and plastic to China.

“In some cases, we just aren’t able to reprocess everything we collect or there isn’t enough of it to do so. In these cases, shipping it to China, which has a high demand and need for material, makes sense in CO2 terms.

She added that recycling waste produced by the UK in the UK where possible was still the preferred option.

“WRAP will continue to build both the environmental and economic case for domestic recycling,” she said.

This study sought to answer the specific question of whether the CO2 emissions from the transport outweighed the benefits of the recycling. It quantifies the CO2 emissions from transporting one tonne of recovered mixed paper or recovered plastic (PET/HDPE) bottles to China. It assumes that the carbon savings of recycling in China are similar to those identified in other countries, including the UK.

It was carried out by Oakdene Hollins and critically reviewed by ERM.

Sam Bond

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