“We can’t trust plastic recycling rates,” spending watchdog warns

UK residents’ efforts to recycle plastic packaging has been revealed to possibly be going to waste, spending watchdogs warn, due to the national recycling system being open to fraud and error.

A 2018 study by the National Audit Office (NAO) discovered that Britain’s official recycling rate could be exaggerated from it wrongly assuming all plastic which ends up at recycling plants is recycled.

In fact, around 10 per cent is contaminated and cannot be recycled and an unknown quantity is exported to other parts of the world without adequate monitoring to ensure it is actually being recycled.

The NAO said that the financial incentive for companies to falsely claim they have recycled plastic is higher than for any other material, making it the most vulnerable to fraud.

The guardian published last year that an investigation by the Environmental Agency is undergo into allegations of fraud by organised criminals and firms.

Allegations under investigation include:

  • Exporters falsely claiming for tens of thousands of tonnes of plastic waste which might not exist
  • UK plastic waste being leaked into rivers and oceans instead of being recycled
  • Plastic waste being illegally shipped abroad
  • UK firms being allowed to continue exporting despite their serial offences of shipping contaminated waste

Statistics on waste from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs’ estimates that the UK exceeded its overall packaging recycling target every year since 1997 therefore the supposed recycled and recovered 64% of packaging in 2017 is brought into question, reports the Telegraph.

EU packaging recycling targets were set by the Packaging and Packaging Waste Directive at 55% and recovery targets at 60% by December 2008, with member states obviously having the freedom to exceed these minimum targets if they choose.

When looking at household waste recycling percentages, it is notable that the rate has remained on a minimal consistent year on year development, with UK member states failing to meet the 50% recycling targets yearly, omitting Wales.

The 2020 EU recycling target of 50% was set in the latest report, in 2018 by the European Commission. Although since 2000, the recycling rate has increased from 11.2% to just under 50%, in the last decade, the improvement rate has plutoed.

In the UK government’s 25 year-plan announced four years ago, they pledged to eliminate all avoidable plastic waste by 2042, such as carrier bags and food packaging. Environmental groups say that the country cannot afford to wait that long and the plan lacks urgency.

Senior Oceans Campaigner at Greenpeace UK, Louise Edge told The Independent: “It’s good that the Government wants to make tackling plastic waste a priority, but the specific measures announced today don’t watch the scale of the environmental crisis we face.”

There is no evidence to corroborate government efforts to encourage companies to minimise packaging or facilitate recycling however the NAO report that recycling rates have increased since the birth of the packaging obligation system.

The report concludes that the system seems to have evolved in the government’s favour, as they meet targets without facing up to underlying recycling issues.

Image courtesy of Magda Ehlers via Pexels, with thanks.

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