The plastics recycling industry is facing an investigation into suspected widespread abuse and fraud within the export system amid warnings the world is about to close the door on UK packaging #waste, the Guardian has learned.
The Environment Agency (EA) has set up a team of investigators, including three retired police officers, in an attempt to deal with complaints that organised criminals and firms are abusing the system.
Six UK exporters of plastic waste have had their licences suspended or cancelled in the last three months, according to EA data. One firm has had 57 containers of plastic waste stopped at UK ports in the last three years due to concerns over contamination of waste.
Allegations that the agency is understood to be investigating include:
- Exporters are falsely claiming for tens of millions of tonnes of plastic waste which might not exist
- UK plastic waste is not being recycled and is being left to leak into rivers and oceans
- Illegal shipments of plastic waste are being routed to the Far East via the Netherlands
- UK firms with serial offences of shipping contaminated waste are being allowed to continue exporting.
UK households and businesses used 11m tonnes of packaging last year, according to government figures. Two-thirds of our plastic packaging waste is exported by an export industry £50m last year.
The exporters make millions by charging retailers and manufacturers a fluctuating tonnage rate for plastic waste recovery notes – currently £60 a tonne. Retailers buy these plastic export recovery notes – Perns – to satisfy the government they are contributing something to recycling plastic packaging waste.
But the system – which was heavily criticised as open to fraud and abuse by the National Audit Office this summer – relies on companies making self declarations about how much packaging they are exporting.
The Guardian understands information has been passed to the EA – the regulators – which shows huge discrepancies between the amount of packaging exports recorded by HM customs, compared to the amount UK exporters claim to have shipped.
The data, analysed by the Guardian, reveals British export firms claim to have shipped abroad 35,135 tonnes more plastic than HM Customs has recorded leaving the country.
One source with knowledge of the inquiry said: “In the last few months the customs figures on waste plastic are lower than the figures given to the Environment Agency by the exporters – suggesting more people are shipping stuff they claim is waste plastic in order to get the Pern price.
“Perns are running at around £60-70 a tonne, so that encourages all sorts of people to pursue the export market, and the question is whether the enforcement is strong enough to detect whether this is actually plastic waste being shipped out.”
At least 100 containers of plastic waste a day are shipped out from ports including Felixstowe and Southampton to Europe and the Far East. Insiders said EA staff have never visited any of the countries or sites where British waste plastic is exported for recycling.
Jacob Hayler, executive director of the Environmental Services Association (ESA), is one of many individuals who has raised the issue of the discrepancy in figures with the EA.