Topic: WasteRecycling is a Colonial Delusion

Though greenhouse gas emissions are the main focus of climate debates, the waste pollution crisis was the original cause of the environmental movement. Dr Arianne Shahvisi digs into the UK’s shaky recycling infrastructure and its dependence on overseas dumping. She argues that it's time we put a stop to waste colonialism once and for all.

Edited by Harry Lloyd. Illustrated by Ifada Nisa. This article was commissioned and funded in collaboration with Wellcome Collection's Stories.

By Arianne Shahvisi

I’d been ‘wishcycling’ long before I realised there was a word for it. My local council – Brighton, the only UK city represented by a Green Party MP – is locked into a 30-year contract with waste disposal giant Veolia, who will recycle no plastic other than bottles. Pots, trays and tubs are ineligible, regardless of the reassuring claims on their labels, and if bottles are mixed with these lower-grade plastics, the whole lot may be too contaminated for recycling. Veolia refuses to amend the contract and expand its recycling capacity, citing the expense of processing low-quality plastic packaging.

I know all this, but continue to place non-recyclable plastics into the recycling bin. Consigning them to landfill is discomfiting, an act of defeat. I’m not the only one; ‘wishcycling,’ a form of delusional recycling, is a modern affliction.

Illustration of untouched and ruined lands

Believing our rubbish is more recyclable than it is eases our consciences about the volume of waste we produce. An act of disposal is transformed, through self-deception, into a good deed. It is telling that recycling should have such virtuous associations. Environmentally speaking, it’s the least desirable of the three ‘Rs’ – Reducing and Reusing involve no additional processing – but it has the advantage of posing little threat to our consumption habits.

Magical thinking pervades our understanding of waste. In the Global North, we take for granted that we can throw things away, where ‘away’ is a mythical place so distant, so beyond the borders of our moral imaginations, as to require no further thought.

Of course, there is no ‘away.’ There are just places and peoples who are deemed to matter less than others. Following flows of waste reveals quieter forms of colonialism. Extraction is not limited to the theft and accumulation of valuable goods; it’s also characterised by the expulsion of pollution and harmful waste. Mining minerals is an extraction of value; so is dumping toxic refuse. Both enrich certain world regions at the cost of others.

Following flows of waste reveals quieter forms of colonialism

Part of the appeal of plastics as they flooded mass markets in the 1950s was their durability. They persist, largely unchanged, over long periods of time. The plastic I wishcycle today will take 500 years to decompose. Particles of plastic are already being deposited in ocean sediments; our waste crisis will be legible in the fossil record to any geologists left to interpret it.

Unmanageable volumes of waste plastic are a side effect of runaway consumption. After the US, the UK creates more plastic waste per capita than any other country globally, amounting to 1.1kg per person, per day. Rather than recognise this 44 and focus on the urgent need for reduction, the UK government instead prides itself on the fact that 50.4% of all UK waste is recycled.

Yet that figure represents the share of waste sent to recycling. Its fate is another matter. Our recycling infrastructure cannot keep step with our waste. Just 10% of our plastic is recycled at UK facilities, while 17% goes straight to landfill. Although most plastic is biochemically inert, toxic chemicals are often added to improve durability or flexibility, and these leach into soil, rivers, groundwater, and plants. There are 21,000 legacy landfill sites across the UK, often buried under parks and public buildings, quietly seeping degraded pollutants into the earth and water.

A further 46% of the UK’s plastic waste is incinerated, according to The British Plastics Federation. While the heat generated by incinerators is converted to useful electricity, burning plastics emits even more airborne contaminants than the equivalent quantity of fossil fuels. Waste incinerators are three times more likely to be found in deprived areas, where people of colour are over-represented. In Brighton, a staggering 78% of plastic waste feeds the incinerator in Newhaven, its less affluent neighbour.

Most worrying of all is the plastic that does go ‘away.’ Around 19% of the UK’s plastic waste is exported, amounting to 1.8 million kilos of plastic packaging waste every day, according to Greenpeace. Lower-income countries are financially incentivised, through legal and illegal channels, to receive waste from higher-income countries. Malaysia, Turkey, Poland and Indonesia are the chief recipients. Countries receiving waste are often already struggling to manage their own plastic disposal, and investigations have shown that shipments are liable to be illegally dumped at unregulated sites or burned.

It is unlawful to export waste unless the exporting state can guarantee that it can and will be properly recycled or incinerated to provide energy. Yet the waste industry is poorly regulated. In 2019, one of the UK’s largest disposal firms, Biffa Waste Services, was found guilty of shipping 175 tonnes of household waste – including used menstrual products, nappies, and non-recyclable plastic – to China, having labelled it as ‘waste paper.’ Biffa argued that its consignment complied with China’s standards for recycling, if not the UK’s. The Environment Agency emphasised that waste must be deemed fit for recycling in its origin country, not its destination, and acknowledged the need for increased monitoring and steeper fees for violations.

The rest languishes on ill-managed landfill sites, where it is easily blown or washed into storm drains, ending up in the sea, and perhaps the swollen belly of some hapless marine creature

Plastic waste degrades so slowly that product branding remains decipherable for years or decades. British rubbish is therefore easy to spot. Greenpeace have photographed Asda, Tesco, Lidl, and M&S labels on illegal dumps in Southern Turkey and have found fragments of recycling collection bags bearing the names of UK councils in Malaysia, along with familiar margarine tubs and crisp packets. A 2021 BBC investigation revealed plastic ‘bags for life’ snagged in landfill sites in Romania, along with kitchen appliances with the distinctively British BS 1363 three-pin plugs. Much of this waste is burned on illegal dumps on the outskirts of Bucharest, whose levels of particulate matter and nitrogen dioxide – pollutants known to cause premature death – are among the highest in Europe. The rest languishes on ill-managed landfill sites, where it is easily blown or washed into storm drains, ending up in the sea, and perhaps the swollen belly of some hapless marine creature. As I write, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch – a fifty-year-old gyre of plastic debris the size of a country – is swelling with detritus from the fishing industry, sewage, and landfill.

Who is to blame? The levels of waste produced by individuals in the UK far exceed what could be considered fair use of a planet on which billions of us – human and non-human – depend. We are taking more than our share of resources, and generating more than our share of damage. The UK government has facilitated this overconsumption by placing economic growth above every other consideration. They have also failed to invest in recycling infrastructure, outlaw the use of low-grade plastics, and adequately regulate waste exports.

Instead, the Government has made use of globalisation to facilitate its ‘not in my backyard’ philosophy, coolly outsourcing the environmental and human cost of outsized consumption. ‘Away’ is the home of others. Other people’s ancient, sacred forests are felled, other people’s landscapes are scarred with mines, other people’s air, soil, and water is sullied. Other people’s health is threatened.

Other people’s ancient, sacred forests are felled, other people’s landscapes are scarred with mines, other people’s air, soil, and water is sullied

As the costs of waste colonialism have become more stark, our options for paying other places to burn or bury the evidence of our overconsumption have dwindled. Having previously received the bulk of the UK’s discarded plastic, in 2018 the Chinese government launched a campaign against 洋垃 圾 (yang laji: foreign waste). In 2020, Yeo Bee Yin, Malaysia’s Environment Minister, ordered the return of 42 containers of illegally imported plastic waste to the UK, warning: ‘if people want to see us as the rubbish dump of the world, you dream on.’ In 2021, the Basel Convention Plastic Waste Amendments came into force, prohibiting shipments of hard-to-recycle plastic to low-income nations. The US, the world’s most prolific producer of plastic waste, opposed the convention, but must nonetheless abide by it.

We must confront the fact that recycling, wishful or not, will not solve the problem of a world awash with plastic. If the United Kingdom is to take the bolder step of radically reducing its waste, it must close its borders to harmful exports and keep its rubbish in its own backyard. There can be no greater antidote to our delusions than to look out on our own rolling hills of litter.


Sandra Laville, Caroline Lucas Calls for Action in Brighton Recycling Row, 2019.


Damian Carrington, US and UK Citizens are World’s Biggest Sources of Plastic Waste – study, 2020.


Rachel Salvidge and Jamie Carpenter, MAPPED: England and Wales’ Toxic Legacy Landfills, 2021


Inori Roy, UK Waste Incinerators Three times More Likely to be in Poorer Areas, 2020.


Euronews, Air Pollution: new report shows which European cities have the worst air quality, 2021

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