Fetid mountains of your carefully sorted recycling: Plastic packaging from M&S and Tesco and Essex council recycling sacks are found piling up in a Malaysian jungle in shocking expose
Deep in the Malaysian jungle, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall rounds a corner on a muddy track and is stunned by the 20ft-high mounds of plastic waste looming over him, stretching as far as the eye can see.
‘It‘s like some dystopian nightmare… a plastic planet,‘ the TV presenter declares.
But this environmental catastrophe-in-the-making 6,500 miles away from the UK has the fingerprints of British supermarkets – and council recycling departments – all over it.
It doesn‘t take long for Hugh to pick out familiar high street names and logos amid this toxic tundra.
Even worse, he spots local authority-branded recycling bags, suggesting, he says, that householders dutifully filling their green bins in the belief they were helping the environment have been lied to.
The celebrity chef discovered mountains of plastic waste from Britain intended for recycling which had been shipped to Malaysia then apparently simply dumped or burned, sending a pall of toxic fumes over the nearby villages.
Millions of tiny ground-up particles of plastic also litter the dump and enter the watercourse, spreading the pollution hazard to river and marine life.
These disturbing scenes will be shown in a three-part documentary co-hosted by Hugh and Countryfile‘s Anita Rani from next week.
Walking through the wasteland near the town of Ipoh, Hugh pulled out countless plastic bags and packaging from M&S, Tesco, Sainsbury‘s, Asda and Waitrose.
But among the tons of supermarket detritus lurk the local council recycling bags, split or torn, suggesting they were indeed used for their intended purpose by some well-meaning taxpayer.
He finds bags from Braintree, Essex, Rhondda Cynon Taf in South Wales and Milton Keynes – the last of which ironically bears the message to householders: ‘We don‘t want unrecyclable rubbish.‘
Investigators from Greenpeace‘s Unearthed unit shared research with the team and they also found recycling bags from London councils Hammersmith and Fulham and Kensington and Chelsea, as well as Castle Point Council in Essex.
Voicing the misgivings of millions of council tax-payers, Hugh says in exasperation: ‘When we put this in our recycling back in the UK, we think we‘re doing the right thing. I do my recycling and I feel good about it.
At least I used to – I don‘t feel so good now. I feel embarrassed, I feel ashamed, I feel angry, I feel I‘ve been lied to.‘
Last year, 665,000 tons of plastic waste were exported by the UK. Until 2018, China was the biggest recipient, then their government placed a ban on the trade.
So now Malaysia holds the unenviable place at the top of our garbage charts, taking in 130,000 tons of British plastic waste in the last year – but is planning a ban of its own.
The lucrative export industry for plastic waste was worth more than £50 million last year, tempting unscrupulous operators to cash in.
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The Government‘s Environment Agency (EA) has set up a team of investigators to deal with complaints that organised criminals and firms are abusing the recycling export system.
An EA spokesman said: ‘There is a legitimate market in overseas recycling.
But the law is clear: any waste exported must be for recovery and/or recycling. Under no circumstances should exported waste be landfilled or dumped.‘
Hugh‘s co-presenter, Anita Rani, spoke of her shock at the programme‘s findings.
She told The Mail on Sunday: ‘It‘s horrendous to discover this rubbish dumped abroad. We‘re doing our bit putting it in the recycling bin – and then it‘s being left to simply become someone else‘s responsibility.‘
Greenpeace UK‘s senior oceans campaigner Louise Edge said: ‘These shocking pictures expose just how serious our plastic waste crisis is.
Britain can‘t carry on dumping its plastic garbage in someone else‘s backyard. ‘Out of sight, out of mind‘ is not the solution to the problem.‘
A Rhondda Cynon Taf council spokesman described the discovery of its bag as ‘unacceptable‘ and said they were as ‘concerned and disappointed as residents will be‘.
Braintree Council said an investigation found that the bag spotted by the team was at least four years old, adding: ‘We are aware that some of the council‘s empty used recycling bags have been sent abroad in the past but they were processed through an Environment Agency-accredited and licensed processing facility.
‘The material was to become an ‘end-of-waste product‘ which specifies no further onward trading as waste, but rather reprocessed, to produce a pellet or flake, and reused as a recyclable material.‘
Their contractor, Viridor, said it ‘received certification that the Braintree District Council recyclate sent to Malaysia was reprocessed to produce recyclable flake and pellet‘, and they were investigating.
Castle Point council said: ‘Our recycling is sent to a licensed waste disposal operator in this country. We have no information as to what happens beyond that.‘
A Kensington and Chelsea spokesman would not comment. Hammersmith and Fulham insisted: ‘We don‘t export any waste abroad.‘
Milton Keynes Council did not respond.
Andrew Opie, director of food and sustainability at the British Retail Consortium, speaking on behalf of Sainsbury‘s, M&S and Aldi, said: ‘This underlines the vital importance of improving Britain‘s recycling infrastructure. Consumers must be confident local councils are appropriately reprocessing items.‘
A Waitrose spokesman said: ‘We no longer give out single-use carrier bags in our shops.‘
Asda told us: ‘We have already taken out 6,500 tons of plastic packaging – equivalent to 600 million plastic bottles – in the past year alone and are working towards making all of our packaging 100 per cent recyclable by 2025.‘
A Tesco spokesman said it was working to create a ‘closed loop‘ for its packaging, meaning it can all be reused.