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Plastic waste trade in the United Kingdom - statistics & facts

Globally, huge volumes of plastic waste materials are shipped around the world for recycling, with the UK one of the largest exporters. In fact, the UK is so reliant on exporting plastic waste that more than 60 percent of UK plastic packaging sent for recycling is currently shipped abroad. Annual UK exports of plastic waste have increased massively since the turn of the century, growing from less than 100,000 metric tons to a peak of 860,000 metric tons in 2011. Exports have fallen since then, and by 2020 they had dropped to 540,000 metric tons.
There are several reasons why the UK exports its plastic waste, such as reducing costs, but the UK also lacks the capacity to recycle all its plastic waste domestically. Despite such large quantities of plastic waste being exported every year, these shipments still count towards UK recycling rate targets.

Where does the UK send its plastic waste?

In previous years China was the largest importer of UK plastic waste by far, but in 2017 it began restricting foreign waste imports due to contamination and pollution concerns. This resulted in plastic waste exports to China falling by 50 percent compared to peak 2011 levels. In January 2018, China’s “National Sword” policy was enacted, which banned the imports of most types of plastic materials. This has seen UK exports to China fall to less than 2,000 metric tons as of 2020. With China no longer a viable option, the UK has had to look elsewhere to send its plastic waste. Turkey is currently the main destination for UK plastic waste, importing 210,000 metric tons in 2020. This accounted for roughly 40 percent of UK plastic waste exports that year. This trend continued in to 2021, with plastic waste exports to Turkey surpassing 100,000 metric tons by the end of July.

Problems with plastic waste exports

Although the UK exports plastic waste to many countries, it is typically shipped to developing regions that often lack the infrastructure to properly manage this waste. The law states that any plastic waste that is exported by the UK must be recycled or incinerated at a waste-to-energy facility. However, this is not always the case, as investigations have found that plastic waste is often being illegally dumped and burned in importing countries like Turkey. This poses a significant environmental threat, which has led to growing concerns about the amount of plastic waste the UK exports. A recent survey found that 62 percent of UK adults supported the government stopping plastic waste exports to other countries. The UK government has pledged to introduce tougher controls on illegal waste exports, and to develop more plastic processing infrastructures to reduce the reliance on exports in a bid to tackle the global plastic waste crisis.

Key figures

The most important key figures provide you with a compact summary of the topic of "UK plastic waste trade" and take you straight to the corresponding statistics.

UK plastic waste trade

Other interesting statistics

Plastic waste trade in the United Kingdom - statistics & facts

Globally, huge volumes of plastic waste materials are shipped around the world for recycling, with the UK one of the largest exporters. In fact, the UK is so reliant on exporting plastic waste that more than 60 percent of UK plastic packaging sent for recycling is currently shipped abroad. Annual UK exports of plastic waste have increased massively since the turn of the century, growing from less than 100,000 metric tons to a peak of 860,000 metric tons in 2011. Exports have fallen since then, and by 2020 they had dropped to 540,000 metric tons.
There are several reasons why the UK exports its plastic waste, such as reducing costs, but the UK also lacks the capacity to recycle all its plastic waste domestically. Despite such large quantities of plastic waste being exported every year, these shipments still count towards UK recycling rate targets.

Where does the UK send its plastic waste?

In previous years China was the largest importer of UK plastic waste by far, but in 2017 it began restricting foreign waste imports due to contamination and pollution concerns. This resulted in plastic waste exports to China falling by 50 percent compared to peak 2011 levels. In January 2018, China’s “National Sword” policy was enacted, which banned the imports of most types of plastic materials. This has seen UK exports to China fall to less than 2,000 metric tons as of 2020. With China no longer a viable option, the UK has had to look elsewhere to send its plastic waste. Turkey is currently the main destination for UK plastic waste, importing 210,000 metric tons in 2020. This accounted for roughly 40 percent of UK plastic waste exports that year. This trend continued in to 2021, with plastic waste exports to Turkey surpassing 100,000 metric tons by the end of July.

Problems with plastic waste exports

Although the UK exports plastic waste to many countries, it is typically shipped to developing regions that often lack the infrastructure to properly manage this waste. The law states that any plastic waste that is exported by the UK must be recycled or incinerated at a waste-to-energy facility. However, this is not always the case, as investigations have found that plastic waste is often being illegally dumped and burned in importing countries like Turkey. This poses a significant environmental threat, which has led to growing concerns about the amount of plastic waste the UK exports. A recent survey found that 62 percent of UK adults supported the government stopping plastic waste exports to other countries. The UK government has pledged to introduce tougher controls on illegal waste exports, and to develop more plastic processing infrastructures to reduce the reliance on exports in a bid to tackle the global plastic waste crisis.

Other interesting statistics

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