Recycling / Malaysia

Recycling / Malaysia

Our response to the BBC's War on Plastic with Hugh and Anita

Recycling and Malaysia

Last year we were approached by a television production team who told us they had visited Malaysia to investigate what happens to bales of plastic recycling exported from the UK. 

They told us that on one site they had discovered a vast pile of plastics dumped out in the open and within that pile, plastic waste from the United Kingdom was clearly identifiable.

Amongst this they found a single Braintree District Council recycling bag.

Like you, we are extremely concerned about this and as soon as we were told we asked our contractor Viridor to investigate with urgency.

Below we have pulled together some answers to questions you might have.

What do you know about the bag?

We were able to establish from the design on the bag that it is at least four years old.

Do you think that the contents of residents’ bags were dumped in Malaysia too?


What has your contractor said?

Viridor has confirmed that Braintree District Council’s recycling is collected in plastic bags and the dry mixed recyclate is retained and sorted within the United Kingdom at either its Great Blakenham or Crayford Materials Recycling Facilities. Once the material has been separated it is sold within the UK and also exported abroad where it is used as a recyclable commodity in the manufacturing industry.

Viridor works with Environment Agency-accredited and licensed processing facilities when any material, such as recycling bags, is sent for export. The Braintree District bags which were, in the past, sent to Malaysia were sold as an “end-of-waste product” which means the material was to be reprocessed to produce a pellet or flake and reused in manufacturing as a recyclable material.

Any instances where material sent to an EA-accredited facility may not been treated as end-of-waste will be investigated by Viridor.

Of course, there could be a simple explanation such as a resident has moved out of the district and taken their sacks with them.

When were you first made aware of this?

When the production team contacted us in November 2018.

What have you put in place to ensure this doesn’t happen again?

We have asked our contractor to investigate. The preliminary investigations didn’t show any breakdown in the supply chain.

Our contract requires Viridor to provide all end destination points for the recyclate material on a monthly basis.

Viridor has a robust system of traceability with regard to its supply chain.

We will continue to monitor this closely.

Do you know exactly where all the different streams of our household waste goes to?

The latest figures we have are figures for the financial year of 2018-2019. In that year we collected 9,972 tonnes of dry recycling material. Of the total tonnage 49.15% (4,901 tonnes) was retained in the UK and 50.85% (5,071 tonnes) was exported. A breakdown of the material types is as follows:

Retained in the UK Market

Aluminium Cans            63%

Steel Cans                   100%

Scrap Metals                100%

Plastic Bags                   93%

Plastic Bottles             100%

Hard Plastics                 73%

Mixed Papers                37.60%

Cardboard                       1%

Residual Waste            100%


Aluminium                     37%

Plastic Bags                    7%

Mixed Papers               62.40%

Hard Plastics                27%

Cardboard                    99%

Why are our recycling bags not recyclable?

They are recyclable. 

Examples of how the recycling bags look when they are turned into pellets:

Plastic pellets

Example of how recycling bags look when they have been reprocessed into flakes

Plastic flake

Why don’t you use bins instead of sacks for recycling?

This is something we could consider. Our view has been that there are benefits of using sacks and they are:

  • It is easier to identify those sacks which have been contaminated with non-recyclable waste. You can’t see what’s in the bin before you tip it and some people put non recyclable items in the bins. If loads are too contaminated they will be rejected which costs the council and ultimately residents’ money.
  • When bins are full, some people stop recycling. Sacks are unlimited and encourage residents to recycle as much as they can.
  • The current bag system is simple and easy to use. Using sacks is also easier for residents’ with less space to store between collections. Using bins would mean an extra big bin if we continued to collect the waste mixed or a number of bins/boxes if the recycling was to be collected separately at the kerbside as some councils do.
  • Sacks are more cost effective compared to wheeled bins or boxes which is a slower operation and more expensive, as additional resources and different types of vehicles are required.
  • The sacks can be recycled.

We are waiting with interest for any legislative changes as part of the Government’s new Resources and Waste Strategy that may require us to reconsider our use of bags.

Is it still worth residents recycling?

Yes absolutely. One empty bag was found and we have not yet established how it got there.

We have always been a council which is proud to recycle and we know residents are keen to recycle too.

Last year, thanks to residents’ efforts, we managed to recycle 49.5 % of all the waste generated.

We have noticed that sometimes the waste collectors put all the different waste in the same vehicle?

The only time we would mix a load is when a vehicle is off the road due to a breakdown and we have not been able to source a replacement vehicle. This is very much the exceptional rather than the rule and is a rare occurrence.

In a case like this the material still goes through a process to remove as much of the waste that can be recycled as possible.

Update - August 2019

We (Braintree District Council) have not been able to discover the original source of the sack that was found.

The investigation will remain open and if more evidence comes to light it will be investigated. 

We started a new contract in May 2019 for our recycling. Our new contract – like our old one – has monthly reporting arrangements which gives us a clear audit trail of where the material is being sent. We will continue to monitor this. 

As part of the Government’s consultation on Resources and Waste Strategy, we have supported the need for further investment in the UK recycling infrastructure to increase capacity and to enable recycling to stay in the country - reducing the amount which needs to be exported. We look forward to the implementation of the outcomes from the consultation which aims to overhaul the waste system. We will further review our practices once the consultation outcomes are known. 

In the meantime we will continue to promote waste minimisation and recycling through the prevent, reduce, reuse and recycle initiatives. In September 2019, we will launch our Say No to Plastic campaign which aims to encourage residents to look for alternatives to single use plastics and excess packaging.

Find out more about recycling here: