Export altercation: Recycling trade association pique at EA remarks

Sorted plastic waste ready for shipping and recycling.

The Recycling Association has slammed as “nonsense” comments made by the head of the Environment Agency which seemed to question the legitimacy of exports of recyclate.

Speaking at the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (EFRA) Committee in Parliament in mid-March, Sir James Bevan said that “sending certain wastes abroad is legal, but not right”, comments that seemed to come amidst a call to ban all exports of waste.

The Recycling Association chief executive Simon Ellin said: “As part of a global circular economy, we need to send materials back to where they were manufactured in the first place to be turned into new products. We’ve got to stop treating them as a waste, but recognise they are a commodity. Why should these commodities be banned from exports? Should we also ban imports of these commodities when needed by our industries?

“Often exports go to recycling facilities that are as good as, or sometimes better, than the ones we have in the UK, whether that is in Europe, Turkey, India, or South East Asia. These countries often have their own tough import restrictions and inspection regimes, and legitimate exporters work very hard to meet those.

“Surely this idea of a ban goes against the principles of free trade and will lead to a UK market that lacks competition and will inevitably lead to inefficiencies. It will also mean more UK material going to landfill and energy from waste, which is lower down the waste hierarchy.

“Clearly, we need investment in more UK recycling infrastructure and as an Association we always welcome that. Indeed, that is coming whether it is the new Shotton paper mill coming in the next few years, the investment being made by companies such as Mura Technology in plastic processing in Teesside and other projects from many other companies.

The UK recycling industry has been calling for the export bar to be set high, he said, offering his own association’s Quality First campaign in support of this. “We’d like the Environment Agency to give us clear guidance on the quality we are permitted to export and our Members will meet it.”

Sir James had also reportedly said: “The law is clear on what can be exported under what conditions. In our experience, the problem when we catch illegal exports is not that they misunderstand guidance, it’s a deliberate attempt.”

Simon Ellin addressed this remark: “This is nonsense from Sir James. I don’t understand the regulations as it isn’t clear,” he said. He added that “top lawyers have told us the law doesn’t specify the conditions, and as an industry we have kept pushing for a clear picture over many years.”

He said that with the introduction of the Resources and Waste Strategy including Extended Producer Responsibility and Consistency of Collections, we should see more use of core materials in packaging and better quality when it is collected. This will help ensure we provide high standard commodities to the UK and export markets. By introducing clear specifications on export, along with digital waste tracking, it will bring more transparency and accountability to the market.

He continued:”The introduction of waste tracking, especially digital solutions such as the Traqa system, will help us have the evidence to show we send legitimate exports of material to state-of-the-art facilities abroad.

“If we know what we can legitimately export and we want this to be high quality, then resources can be targeted at genuine waste criminals who are the problem that undermine us all.

“I would question whether this is Sir James trying to cover his own back. The Environment Agency has spectacularly failed on tackling waste crime under his stewardship in my opinion. Waste crime has escalated, and banning exports will not be the solution, with criminals often getting away with it within the UK anyway.

“We have a horrendous problem with waste crime here, and the Environment Agency hasn’t done its job in tackling it, recruited enough people to crack down on it, or get enough funding out of the Government to sort it.

“He should have got his own house in order, without undermining the foundations of a successful UK recycling export industry.

“I just hope the next chief executive has the common sense not to spout their personal opinions, but gets on with the job of working with the recycling industry to allow legitimate exports of recyclate that benefits the UK.”