REVEALED: UK plastic recycling found dumped in Malaysia
Plastic packaging from British recycling bins has been found discarded at multiple illegal dump sites in Malaysia, a joint investigation by Greenpeace’s Unearthed and The Daily Telegraph has revealed.
The news comes as the Environment Agency is embarking on a major investigation into claims of fraud in the UK’s recycling exports system, including allegations that exported UK plastic waste is not being recycled.
Unearthed can now reveal it found brands familiar to UK supermarket shelves strewn across a vast pile of rubbish standing 10 feet tall on a site measuring nearly three acres, located about an hour’s drive from the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur. The products included Fairy dishwasher tablets, Yeo Valley yoghurt and Tesco Finest crisp.
In an adjoining recycling facility that has been closed for months, reporters also found ripped-open recycling bags from UK local authorities, discarded in a huge pile of plastic bags, alongside yet more food packaging from the UK and across Europe.
Residents in the area have complained that fumes from recycling factories operating without the correct permits have kept them awake at night and left them concerned about the effect on their health.
In nearby Klang, home to Malaysia’s largest port and the entry point for most imports, investigators found sacks of discarded European and British plastics in a largely abandoned industrial complex, where piles of rubbish are routinely dumped and burned by the roadside, billowing acrid clouds of smoke.
In Ipoh, about 140 miles to the north, Unearthed found Tesco’s carrier bags and packaging for McCain’s oven chips, Yazoo yoghurt drink, and Heinz baked beans alongside Australian household plastics and factory offcuts piled 20ft high. Milk bottles and shreds of bags floated in stagnant pools of water at the feet of the piles. Satellite imagery shows the dump has mushroomed in the past year.
Commenting on the findings of the investigations, Greenpeace UK’s senior oceans campaigner Louise Edge said:
“These shocking pictures of UK household recycling dumped in illegal sites thousands of miles from home expose just how serious our plastic waste crisis is. The problem is that the companies making and selling single-use plastic are churning out more of the stuff than our recycling system can cope with. Unless we cut off the stream of plastic at the tap, we won’t stop the overflow of waste spilling out all around us, from Britain’s shores to illegal dumps halfway around the world.”
The UK exports around twice as much plastic packaging for recycling as it processes domestically – almost all of it to Asia. For years, most of this went to China, but since China banned these imports at the start of 2018, Malaysia has become the world’s top destination for plastic for recycling.
Between January and August 2018, the UK exported over 88,000 tonnes of plastic scrap to Malaysia – more than a quarter of the UK’s total plastic scrap exports. At the same time, the country has been inundated with plastic scrap from around the world, overloading its waste management system.
Last December, as China was preparing to ban plastic imports, environment secretary Michael Gove told the BBC that, in the long term, the UK would have to “stop offshoring our dirt.”
“It’s nearly a year since Michael Gove said Britain must stop offshoring its dirt, yet Britain is still behaving like a long-range fly-tipper, shifting the environmental and social costs of our addiction to single-use plastic to communities all over South East Asia,” added Louise Edge.
“‘Out of sight, out of mind’ should now be out of the question – it’s high time we took responsibility for our waste. Ministers should investigate how British recycling ended up in these dumps, reform the perverse subsidies that encourage waste exports, and ban the ‘problem plastic’ that’s impossible or very hard to recycle.”
Exporting waste that cannot be recycled is illegal in all but a few circumstances. Under EU recycling rules, materials can only be exported for recycling if they will be treated in broadly equivalent environmental conditions to how they would be handled in Europe. But Unearthed saw multiple sites where household plastics bundled for recycling were stored outside in tropical conditions that experts say render them largely unrecyclable.
Pictures: Stills of some of the British plastic waste and illegal sites found during investigations can be downloaded here. Please note the folder names indicate who the pictures should be credited to, either Greenpeace or Jules Rahman Ong / Greenpeace.
Contact: Greenpeace UK news team at firstname.lastname@example.org, t 020 7865 8255 and m 07506 512442