The European Union’s crusade to recycle plastic is making pollution of the world’s oceans worse, a climate think tank warned yesterday.
Wealthy Western countries including the UK ship millions of tons of plastic waste to poorer countries for recycling every year.
But because environmental controls in these countries are weaker, much of the plastic ends up in the sea or burned in the open, releasing dangerous chemicals.
The report by the Global Warming Policy Foundation, which advocates climate change scepticism, criticised the EU’s “absurd” crusade to recycle plastic.
And it said Brussels is also blocking the controversial option that would permanently remove plastic from the environment – “clean” incineration.
The revelation came as it was revealed yesterday that Britons throw away 55.5 billion plastic items a year.
The staggering figure works out at about 1,000 items each, with plastic food packaging, bottles and wet wipes dominating, according to pollsters Opinium Research.
Yet nine in 10 of people quizzed said they were worried about the impact of plastic on the environment.
Now the UK has been urged to tackle the production of single-use plastic.
The Foundation study, Save The Oceans – Stop Recycling Plastic, said the problem has been compounded by China’s decision earlier this year to refuse to accept plastic waste from overseas.
For the past two decades nearly half the EU’s annual six million tons of plastic waste has gone to China for recycling.
Now EU states, the USA and Japan are “desperately” turning to countries such as Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia and Bangladesh.
The study’s author, Finnish public health expert Dr Mikko Paunio, wrote: “Since the waste management infrastructure in South-east Asia is much more primitive than in China, it remains unclear to what extent the rejected ‘recycles’ end up in the ocean or burned in the open.”
Two years ago the Ellen MacArthur Foundation predicted that at current rates there will be more plastic in the sea than fish by 2050.
Dr Paunio said waste can be dumped en route to the Far East to avoid landfill fees in wealthy countries or dumped once there by unregulated recycling firms who want only high-quality plastic.
He cited a study that said 25 per cent of plastic that ends up in the sea “leaks” from waste management systems.
“The fact that recycling in the EU (as well as in the USA, Japan and Australia) is a major source of marine litter in Asia is completely hidden,” said Dr Paunio.
He added the “only sustainable” way forward is to dispose of plastic in properly managed landfills or incinerate it. But he said incineration is “being compromised by the EU’s new anti-incineration stance”.
Critics argue that incineration destroys valuable resources and results in pollution, but Dr Paunio said modern plants, which can be used to generate heat and energy, are clean and safe.