Importing waste is costing the earth

Too many countries are exporting waste to regions that lack the infrastructure to cope

(FILES) In this file photo taken on May 13, 2020 Gary Stokes, founder of the environmental group Oceans Asia, poses with discarded face masks he found on a beach in the residential area of Discovery Bay on the outlying Lantau island in Hong Kong. Used to curb the spread of Covid-19, masks are exacerbating another pandemic: Plastic pollution. / AFP / Anthony WALLACE
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"This is not about some expensive, politically correct act of bunny hugging", said UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson as he called for a "green" Covid-19 recovery during a speech at a virtual global climate summit last April. For Britain and other major powers, it is a more difficult task than it seems, but it is of global importance. A recent report by the environmental NGO Greenpeace details the environmental impact of Britain's massive per-capita rate of plastic waste, which is second only to that of the US, and how its impact extends beyond Europe.

The speed at which new plastic is created far outpaces the UK's ability to recycle it. Instead, almost half of Britain's plastic waste is burnt, with a further 20 per cent ending up in landfill. Nineteen per cent of it is also exported – a practice that not only shoves environmental damage elsewhere, but also amplifies it.

Turkey was the largest recipient of exported British waste in 2020, receiving  more than 200,000 tons. Under UK law, it is illegal to send waste abroad if it is not going to be recycled or incinerated to produce energy. But images of plastic from British supermarkets dumped or burning along Turkey's otherwise scenic Mediterranean coast imply that London is ignoring its own rules.

Waste management has the potential to become one of the first truly lucrative green industries

Importing waste is a lucrative practice for countries in need of the money. But without strategies to do so sustainably, it is costly in other ways: burning plastic endangers people’s health, and vast imports create a free-for-all in which organised crime gets a 21st-century stake in the garbage trade.

The industry's environmental impact stretches across the Middle East. One hundred and ten thousand tonnes of plastic waste rolls into the Mediterranean from Turkey each year. Egypt's rate is even higher, at 250,000 tonnes.

In an article for The National last year, Dr Nawal Al-Hosany, the UAE's permanent representative to the International Renewable Energy Agency, highlighted strategies to address the issue of waste. The UAE aims this year to divert 75 per cent of refuse from landfills towards energy production. This will work towards a target of using 50 per cent sustainable energy by 2050, up from 25 per cent today. The Emirates Waste to Energy Company in Sharjah, set to be completed this year, plans to process more than 300,000 tonnes of waste into enough electricity to power almost 30,000 homes. Similar schemes are taking place across the GCC. A model for "circular economies" will see waste turned into green energy, rather than simply being abandoned.

There is no boil-in-the-bag solution to the wider climate crisis. In a sea of challenges, waste management has the potential to become one of the first truly lucrative green industries. With that in mind, the image of British plastic burning along Turkey's coast is not just an international embarrassment, but a missed opportunity too.