Climate Conscious
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Climate Conscious

Activists Dump Half a Ton of Plastic on Downing Street

Greenpeace, plastic waste, and Boris Johnson.

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplashed. Greenpeace demonstrator at a climate change protest.

On the 13th of July, Greenpeace activists dumped over half a ton of plastic waste on Boris Johnson’s doorstep. More precisely, 625 kilograms of plastic — the amount which the United Kingdom reportedly exports every thirty seconds on average.

The UK is currently the second-largest producer of plastic waste in the world, according to the latest research published in the journal Science Advances. It is only surpassed by the United States, which generates the most annual plastic trash per capita globally. When it comes to recycling, more than half of the plastic that the British government claims to recycle is exported somewhere else. However, there is no subsequent follow-up on these exports, which means that the plastic may end up in landfills or incinerators instead of being recycled.

Turkey has recently become the primary destination for the UK’s plastic exports. All despite the fact that the country does not have the capacity to recycle enough of its own plastic let alone what it imports. This is something which has been recently exposed by Greenpeace, whose investigations revealed the illegal dumping of plastic trash from the UK and Germany across southern Turkey. Under the current legislation, this plastic should have been recycled, but in practice, it is simply being moved from one place to another. Following the revelations, the Turkish government said it would impose restrictions on plastic waste imports, but they have recently backed away from this policy.

Greenpeace is an international environmental organization that has gathered enough criticism to justify a Wikipedia page specifically on the subject. However, one thing is certain, it knows how to make a point. Last month, Greenpeace activists dumped 625 kilograms of plastic packaging waste on Downing Street, where the official residency of the UK’s Prime Minister — Boris Johnson — is housed. The amount of plastic unloaded represents the equivalent to what the UK reportedly shipped on average every thirty seconds last year, which sums up to an annual total of 688 thousand tons of exported waste. Alongside the tipping truck, which read “Stop Plastic Exports,” was a figure dressed as a caricature of Boris Johnson. According to the organization’s press release, the intervention aims to help the government visualize how much plastic waste the country dumps on other nations and was sparked by Turkey’s change of heart regarding the ban on plastic imports.

It is no coincidence that Turkey has recently become a dumping ground for some European countries — it all started two years ago. In May of 2019, almost all of the world’s countries agreed to restrict the export of hard-to-recycle plastic through a new amendment to the Basel Convention. A convention designed to restrict the transfer of hazardous waste, such as toxic chemicals, from wealthy nations to less developed countries — which have signed the convention but are not part of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). Under the new amendment, in order to transport plastic waste between countries, the exporting country now needs to ask for permission from the receiving government instead of dealing solely with private entities. Although the US is the largest producer of plastic worldwide, it was reportedly against the amendment. However, given that the country has failed to ratify the convention ever since signing it in 1990, it had no vote in the matter.

Since Turkey is a member of the OECD, it is easier for countries like the UK and Germany to continue dumping their plastic waste there under the cover of recycling, despite the new amendment. This is why exports of plastic rubbish from the UK to Turkey have increased in the past two years. Germany is equally to blame here, ranking fourth in the list of top producers of plastic waste. However, the European Union has been taking further measures to stop the global plastic trade beyond the recent amendment— something that might atone for Germany’s export policies in the long run.

As of January 1st, 2021, the European Union has completely banned the export of all non-recyclable plastics to non-OECD developing nations. Furthermore, it has also adopted stricter measures regarding the export between EU countries and OECD parties like Turkey. The UK had previously promised to maintain EU’s environmental standards post-Brexit, and as such was expected to follow the lead. However, the British government chose not the adopt such measures and therefore continue its practices.

Photo by Ocean Cleanup Group, Saving the Ocean on Unsplash. OCG crew cleaning a beach.

The actions of Greenpeace maintain the pressure on the British government to take action and make sure the public remains conscious of the current environmental plastic crisis. The amount of land that thousands upon thousands of kilos of plastic takes up is stolen from local communities, who are forced to live by the side of landfills. It is no wonder then that so much of this plastic will end up in the ocean. Meanwhile, the EU has chosen to lead by example and advance its anti-plastic policies. Most recently, the Union has also banned the top ten single-use plastic items most commonly found on beaches. A directive was also adopted by Norway, even though the country is not part of the EU.

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Gil Pires

Gil Pires

Junior Consultant | MSc in Biotechnology