Turkish Ban on Plastic Waste Imports Highlights Need for New UK Waste Facilities

06 July 2021

Turkish Ban on Plastic Waste Imports Highlights Need for New UK Waste Facilities
Last week, Turkey banned imports of plastic waste. This will have a significant impact on waste management in the UK, which currently does not have adequate recycling capacity to handle this material.


The UK exports a considerable amount of waste overseas every year. In2020 this included c. 600,000 tonnes of recovered plastic which is shipped to countries including Thailand, the Philippines, Malaysia and Turkey. With more than 200,000 tonnes of plastic packaging waste being sent to Turkey in 2020 alone, this is the equivalent of 30 shipping containers every day.
The market for waste exports is closing. Previously, China was the biggest global importer of plastic, but it banned plastic waste imports in 2017; and Malaysia has become more heavily regulated. And accessing other markets is proving less easy. For example, waste sent to other countries for incineration, such as the Netherlands, is now subject to an import tax which makes this option less viable.
Without the proper facilities to deal with this material, the UK had become overly reliant on Turkey for waste exports. Over 76,000 tonnes of plastic packaging waste had been sent to Turkey in the period January – March 2021 alone. The recycling capacity available in the UK amounts to c.75% of the volume that is currently being exported to Turkey. The ban announced by this country earlier this month will lead to frantic activity as other markets are approached but, should these not be forthcoming, ultimately it could lead to a build-up of waste in the UK that has nowhere else to go.
It was recently revealed that in 2020 Northern Ireland sent c.235,000 tonnes of waste overseas to countries including the USA, Ghana, Indonesia and Turkey. As has been demonstrated several times in the past couple of years, exporting waste in this manner is not sustainable either financially or environmentally, and is becoming increasingly fraught and precarious. It is also at odds with the ambitions of the NI Waste Management Plan which conceives developing a local industry. Sending waste overseas also contradicts the “proximity principle” which aims to treat waste as close as practicable to where it is created and the this month’s report from the Climate Change Commission also highlighted the need to cease exporting waste if we’re to achieve net zero by 2050.
DEFRA recently stated, “The UK must handle more of its waste at home, and that’s why we are committed to banning the export of plastic waste to non-OECD countries and clamping down on illegal waste exports.”
Ultimately, we will only break the export habit by taking responsibility for our own waste, reducing the levels of rubbish we produce and building modern new facilities to treat and dispose of it. The days of exporting our rubbish to become someone else’s problem are thankfully coming to an end – we’re being forced to face reality.
PS. Shortly after this ban was announced, the Turkish government repealed the ban and in its place implemented an enhanced licensing system instead. This development highlights the fragility of relying on export markets for waste management, these markets are likely to prove unreliable for councils for short to mid-term financial or revenue planning purposes.