Why we shouldn’t ban plastic waste exports
A group of well-meaning MPs has tabled an Early Day Motion to oppose the export of plastic waste to third world countries, saying it should be reprocessed and reused here in the UK instead. But is this really a good thing?
Yes, in the short term, we seriously need to clean up the plastic waste export business. But in the longer term, when we need to build a sustainable, circular economy, such exports will become the lifeblood of the global economy. If most plastic products are manufactured in the Far East, then that’s where plastic waste needs to go to close the loop. Using the material in the UK might sound attractive, but in practice it will lead to downcycling (‘what are we going to do with this food grade polyethylene – park furniture?’) at best. Closing the loop means just that – connecting waste streams back into the very manufacturing processes (or similar) from whence they came.
You could argue that the waste should be reprocessed here in the UK and the resulting clean raw material exported, but if we want secondary (recycled) materials to compete with primary (virgin) materials, then processing should take place wherever that makes economic sense – provided environmental and labour standards are met, of course. Otherwise, you’re just handing an economic advantage to primary materials and locking us into unsustainability.
So, yes, we need to clean up the export business and put safeguards in place to ensure we aren’t simply offshoring landfill, but banning plastic waste exports outright would do more harm than good.