Image: Greenpeace carries out an investigation in 2019 on waste disposals in Malaysia, Credit: © Nandakumar S. Haridas / Greenpeace
Historically the UK has claimed access to land of economically disadvantaged countries and people for property settlement or resource extraction. But in recent years, as the global thirst for mass disposability increased, requirements for landfill and recycling facilities have grown too.
In 1997 - some eight years after waste colonialism was coined at Basel - the UK introduced a series of obligations designed to instil 'producer responsibility' under its Packaging Waste Regulation. This included the Packaging Waste Recovery Notes (PRN) scheme. A measure implemented to improve sustainable business practice and, ultimately, prevent landfill from clogging by diverting the flow of packaging waste that could extract value.
Under the new legislation, obligated businesses (any company with a turnover exceeding £2 million or producing more than 50 tonnes of plastic packaging per calendar year) was required to purchase a PRN. This acted as documented evidence that packaging waste had been recycled or recovered in the UK and demonstrated that businesses had offset the impact of packaging that they’d placed on the UK market.
There was also an international exporters version – known as PERN. This was equivalent to the tonnage of packaging recycled. It could be raised as evidence by exporting packaging waste for recycling, or by recovery or through incinerating packaging waste at an accredited facility. The PRN / PERN system provided financial incentives for the recycling industry to either collect and reprocess or export for reprocessing. In result, this would meet the increasingly stringent EU recycling targets.
But there was one major flaw.
The self-reporting regulatory system of PERN combined with the lack of due diligence from UK Government left the export system wide open to exploitation. Government guidelines were clear in its expectations: exporters must demonstrate that the final destination of the waste they send to other countries “operates to human health and environmental protection standards that are broadly equivalent to the standards within the EU.” However, the limited verification measures imposed by recipient countries meant this was easily exploited.