Every year, the world produces almost 370 million tonnes of plastic. The UK produces more plastic waste per person than all other countries in the world, bar the USA, equating to 5.2 million tonnes every year – enough to fill Wembley Stadium six times over! With many of us rinsing, sorting and separating our plastics from our cardboards, we naturally assume that our recycling will be taken to a processing plant to be recycled and reused – but is that really the case?
Well, according to the latest government stats, it is. The government claims that the UK recycles 70% of all packaging waste including plastic, however, on closer inspection it is revealed that targets are being almost exclusively met by the exporting of waste to other nations such as Malaysia and Turkey. In 2020, 688,000 tonnes of plastic packaging waste was exported from the UK, this is a daily average of just under 2000 tonnes of waste. This pattern is mirrored in other high-income countries, such as the USA, who are also guilty of exporting tonnes of contaminated plastic waste. This exploitative practice is termed ‘Waste Colonialism’, a concept formally introduced in 1989 by the UN.
Destination countries, not only lack the capacity to process the waste from overseas, but also lack adequate infrastructure to manage their own waste and recycling requirements. In many cases the plastic exported for ‘recycling’ is burnt, fly-tipped or just left to pile up until sites are full.
The frequent illegal export of waste, as well as the wide scale prevalence of illegal dumpsites is curbing environmental health, social well-being, and economic development in destination countries. The stats are shocking. With every 30 seconds that pass the UK throws away 2 double-decker busloads of plastic waste, 30 double-decker busloads of plastic waste are burned or dumped in developing countries and 1 person dies from diseases caused by mismanaged waste.
Many of us are aware of the environmental implications of plastic waste – with devastating images of turtles entangled in ‘six pack’ holders widely publicised, but when it comes to the human health impacts we are left in the dark. Plastic pollution is creating a growing public health emergency around the world, and the shifting of the burden of plastic waste to other countries means that these impacts are disproportionately felt by low income and vulnerable communities. At least 30 diseases can be associated with mismanaged waste, of which plastic is a growing element. Research by Tearfund suggests that between 400,000 and 1 million people die each year in low- and middle-income countries because of illness related to mismanaged waste. At the upper end, that is one person every 30 seconds.
Mismanaged waste, including plastics, impacts the health of individuals in developing countries in several ways; the open burning of waste releases cancer-causing pollutants and when waste is left in dumps it creates breeding grounds for mosquitoes, flies and vermin which spread diseases such as malaria and rabies. Mismanaged plastic blocks waterways and drainage systems resulting in flooding and the spread of waterborne diseases, while also polluting water and soil with microplastics and increasing incidences of diarrhoeal diseases for people living among mismanaged waste. This impact on human health results in a societal cost of £11.9 billion at the lower end and £29.9 billion at the upper end, in terms of loss of life.
In recent years the push back from nations that have historically accepted UK waste, has increased the pressure on the government to update waste infrastructure and innovate. The proposed introduction of the Extended Producer Responsibility reform (EPR) is set for 2023 and is pushing for the responsibility and accountability to be placed on manufacturers and retailers for the entire life cycle of a product, from supply chain to end-product. This is an example of how a single regulatory event can potentially ‘internalise’ part of the external cost (i.e. become a ‘real’ financial cost to a company). The proposed introduction of EPR scheme provides a key opportunity to implement charges that discourage companies from producing non-recyclable packaging and incentivise them to switch to reusable and refillable options. This could make a real difference, as Greenpeace estimates that reducing single-use plastic by 50% would allow the UK to end waste exports, as well as significantly reducing the amount of plastic going into incineration and landfill.
The EPR is one of several potential regulatory instruments which could ‘internalise’ the cost, but the ‘levers’ are not always regulatory – customer boycotts in certain countries are another example of how societal costs can ultimately be transferred to companies (e.g. reduced sales). Route2 routinely undertakes scenario analysis to construct internalisation pathways for its clients … but the starting point is always to first understand their physical impacts (waste, water, pollutants, emissions, modern slavery etc), and then the economic (wider societal) cost of these impacts. This provides a new lens on materiality and the platform from which companies can be better prepared for future operating landscapes.