UK must double recycling exports

If the UK is to cope with the growing volume of waste being diverted from landfill for recycling, it will need to nearly double the amount of waste it exports to the developing world.

This is the conclusion of a study by UK waste experts unveiled at a Royal Geographical Society conference on waste. It warns that the UK does not have the facilities to deal with the projected rise in recycling.

If Government targets are met, 40 per cent of household waste will be collected for recycling by 2010 and 50 per cent by 2020.

Professor Adam Read, head of waste management at Hyder Consulting, said: “Unless we invest heavily and quickly in the development of new paper mills, and other reprocessing facilities, we will be faced by a glut of recyclables collected from the kerbside and nowhere to treat and process it.

“Without overseas markets, both in the EU and wider a field in the rapidly developing economies of Latin America, China and India, we may sink under the weight of our unprocessed recyclables.”

But the UK’s ability to export its recycling is constrained by contamination of waste shipments. An estimated five per cent of recycling sent to other countries for processing is illegally contaminated with unsorted waste, making it useless. Contaminated shipments are usually dumped in landfill sites.

According to Professor Read, the UK will still need to build 50 waste sorting facilities in order to process the excess recycling before it is exported.

The practice of shipping waste around the world to be recycled is extremely contentious. Some environmental activists argue that the benefits of reducing the use of landfill sites may be outweighed by the carbon emissions from transport.

Once more, the recycling takes place in parts of the world which often have lax environmental and labour protection laws.

Robin Ingenthron from WR3A, a US campaign aiming to introduce fair trade principles to the international market in recycling, told edie:

“Are there dangers from exporting recyclables overseas? Absolutely.

The issue is ‘Toxics Along for the Ride’, or TAR. A UK paper mill would never accept sludge or oil waste in bales of waste paper. A desperate paper mill in China (where there are few environmental penalties) might be willing to accept a bad bale along with the good, if all it means is dumping it in a river.”

But he added: “The fact is that the dirtiest recycling is probably better for the environment than the cleanest mining and forestry.”

Jess McCabe

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