Where does my plastic water bottle go once I’m done with it? It’s a fleeting question that pops into my mind when taking out the bins. It’s akin to ‘Where does our water go once it’s down the drain?’ or ‘How do they manage to put the orange jam in the Jaffa Cakes so perfectly every single time?’ But then, like a shower thought—as swiftly as it enters my brain, it’s gone again. I’ll be the first to admit, I haven’t given such an important and complex issue the attention it deserves until recently. Naively, I have trusted the UK government, which claims to be the “global leader” in tackling plastic pollution, to ethically dispose of my plastic waste.
A recent report from Greenpeace suggests otherwise, unveiling the inadequacies in our plastic recycling system. Globally, more than 90 per cent of all plastic waste has never been recycled. In the UK, just 10 per cent of our plastics are recycled on this small, rainy island. The rest is, quite literally, dumped in other countries—having a detrimental impact on wildlife, our oceans, local communities and, not to mention, humanity as a whole.
The investigation from Greenpeace, released on 17 May 2021, found that Turkey has become the largest destination for Britain’s plastic waste. Investigating 10 sites across Southern Turkey, in its latest report, Thrashed, Greenpeace found plastics from major UK supermarkets burned or dumped. Plastic waste was also found in waterways, floating downstream and washing up on the Meditarian coast.
Investigators found British plastic products dumped in roads, fields and waterways abroad. Prior to 2017, China was the key target for UK plastic waste, however since plastic exports were banned by the Chinese government later that year, Turkey has become the UK’s largest, most recent target.
And the problem is only getting worse. The exports of plastic waste to Turkey have increased approximately 17 fold in the last 5 years. In 2016, the UK exported 12,000 tons of plastic to Turkey. In 2020, that number increased to 209,642 tones, equating to around 40 per cent of all UK plastic waste.
The issue of exporting a vast majority of our plastics to countries like Turkey is that it can be detrimental for those countries’ own recycling systems. “As this new evidence shows, plastic waste coming from the UK to Turkey is an environmental threat, not an economic opportunity. Uncontrolled imports of plastic waste do nothing but increase the problems that exist in Turkey’s own recycling system.” Temiz Atas from Greenpeace Mediterranean told the BBC.
The findings have led Greenpeace to urge the UK government to enact the environmental bill and use their powers to ban all plastic waste exports. The proposal also demands an immediate ban on all plastic waste to exports to countries outside of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD)—as well as a ban on mixed plastic waste to OECD countries such as Turkey.
This is an issue that is not solely tied to the UK—taking a step back reveals the urgent crisis of plastic pollution is in fact a grave global issue. Other countries across the continent have also designated Turkey as their preferred plastic dump. According to The Guardian, 241 lorryloads of plastic waste make their way into Turkey from European countries every single day—that’s a 20-time increase since 2016. The shocking volume of plastic piled on Turkey has led Greenpeace to warn Turkey was becoming Europes’ “largest plastic waste dump.”
According to the UK and EU rules, plastic waste should not be exported to countries unless it is going to be recycled. However, Turkey’s recycling rate, despite being the largest destination for UK waste plastic, is just 12 per cent, the lowest of any OECD member. Likewise, the dramatic impact of plastic waste is not only detrimental to our environment and oceans—last year, Interpol claimed that the huge increase in plastic waste in Turkey was causing an explosion in the illegal waste trade, which has been reported to cause the kind of violence usually associated with organised crime.
It’s easy to feel helpless in a situation like this. It’s like watching a barn burn with no water or fire extinguisher—year on year, the blaze is only getting bigger (like the amount of plastic being exported but not responsibly recycled). Unless we suddenly ditch plastics altogether, there is no black-and-white solution to this problem. However, using your power as a citizen by donating to organisations like Greenpeace and signing petitions to pressure the government into introducing sustainable policies will definitely help.
Also, it’s a no-brainer but cut down plastic usage in your daily life. Get yourself a reusable water bottle, avoid plastic straws like the plague and next time you’re shopping, ask yourself whether you really need the plastic bag. Do you really need that extra plastic? Because the planet definitely doesn’t.
There are many conflicting opinions on whether the coronavirus pandemic is improving or aggravating our fight against the climate crisis. At first, people were quick to celebrate the lockdowns put in place in many countries—they meant less air traffic and impressive CO2 emission cuts. But as time went by, the media started changing its headlines. Despite the economic slowdown, greenhouse gases were still being emitted and recycling schemes put on hold. So, is COVID-19 having a positive or negative impact on climate change?
The widely-reported benefit of the pandemic has been cleaner air in countries such as China and some European countries. In a matter of months, transport networks and businesses have closed down, which resulted in a sudden drop in carbon emissions. A month ago, the BBC reported that “levels of pollution in New York have reduced by nearly 50 per cent compared with last year” because of the measures put into place in order to contain the virus.
Both China and Northern Italy have also recorded a decrease in nitrogen dioxide, an air pollutant that contributes to climate change. Energy use drastically dropped in China over a two week period. As many experts predicted that COVID-19 would impact CO2 levels for the whole of this year, things looked good for the planet and most people were glad to welcome this tiny bit of positive news. But as we’ve seen more recently, the pandemic has also had some serious negative consequences on climate change.
While people working from home means a decrease in overall emissions, it also results in an increase in electricity use and home heating and a surge in the amount of garbage produced by each household. People stuck at home are increasingly shopping online and ordering food to be delivered to their door, both of which come with a lot of packaging.
Shops and businesses that once preached the use of reusable bags and containers are now advising customers to switch to single-use packaging and bags despite the fact that single-use plastics can still harbour bacteria. At the beginning of March, Starbucks announced that it would temporarily ban the use of reusable cups in its coffee shops.
In other words, the plastic bag ban that was implemented in many countries is no longer being followed in order to slow down the spread of COVID-19, but also because people have ‘more important things’ on their minds right now.
As hospitals become overwhelmed with the increasing number of patients in need of care, the demand for personal protective equipment (PPE) has in turn surged. As a result, COVID-19 is generating tons and tons of medical waste.
According to Bloomberg in The Unexpected Environmental Consequences of COVID-19, during the outbreak hospitals in Wuhan, where the pandemic first broke out, produced an average of over 200 tons of medical waste per day, up from its previous average of less than 50 tons.
With more plastic and medical waste being generated, countries have also decided to halt recycling programmes. In the US, some cities have done so as officials are worried about recycling centres potentially spreading the virus. In some European countries, waste disposal options have been paused indefinitely. Of course, the safety of sanitation workers should be our priority, but Italy went as far as banning any infected resident from sorting their waste at all.
Although it is true that the coronavirus outbreak has had one positive effect on our carbon emissions, it would be shortsighted to say that it will improve our environmental impact generally. After the financial crash of 2008 and 2009, global emissions dropped for a year because of the reduced industrial activity but quickly went back up as countries turned to fossil fuel for a quick and easy fix.
Right now, most of us are struggling to breathe as the planet is finally getting a breath of fresh air. And as twisted as it sounds, the worst is yet to come, environmentally-speaking. Once we start coming out of our houses again, the world will have to wake up to another problem: a garbage and recycling crisis.