British packaging waste shipped overseas for recycling could actually be ending up in landfill due to inadequate checks, the Government’s spending watchdog has warned.
Packaging recycling obligations require more than 7,000 firms responsible for generating waste to demonstrate that a certain amount has been recycled.
But a report by the National Audit Office (NAO) criticised the Environment Agency’s oversight of the scheme in England.
It also said Michael Gove’s Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs had not done enough to assess the wider effectiveness of the system and “has not been sufficiently proactive” in managing the risks associated with the rise in exports of waste.
Under the scheme, firms with recycling obligations contributed £73 million in 2017 to the cost of dealing with their waste by paying for “recovery evidence notes” from reprocessing plants or exporters.
Since 2002 the amount of waste sent overseas to countries including China, Turkey, Malaysia and Poland has increased sixfold – accounting for half of the packaging reported as recycled last year.
But the NAO said: “We are concerned that the agency does not have strong enough controls to prevent the system subsidising exports of contaminated or poor-quality material.”
There was a risk that some material was not recycled to UK standards “and is instead sent to landfill or contributes to pollution”.
The NAO said 11 million tonnes of packaging was used by UK households and businesses and noted that 64% of packaging waste was reported as recycled in 2017.
The spending watchdog acknowledged that “while there are questions about the exact scale of packaging recycling” rates had increased since the system was introduced in 1997.
But it added: “The system appears to have evolved into a comfortable way for Government to meet targets without facing up to the underlying recycling issues.
“The Government has no evidence that the system has encouraged companies to minimise packaging or make it easy to recycle.
“And it relies on exporting materials to other parts of the world without adequate checks to ensure this material is actually recycled, and without consideration of whether other countries will continue to accept it in the long-term.”
NAO chief Sir Amyas Morse said: “If the UK wants to play its part in fully tackling the impacts of waste and pollution, a tighter grip on packaging recycling is needed.”
He added: “The Government should have a much better understanding of the difference this system makes and a better handle on the risks associated with so much packaging waste being recycled overseas.”
A Defra spokesman said: “Since the current packaging producer responsibility regime was introduced, recycling rates have increased significantly.
“However, there is much more to do. We don’t recycle enough waste, and we export too much of it.
“That’s why we have already committed to overhaul the system, and we will set out our reforms in the Resources and Waste Strategy later this year.”