How to use open-data to track plastic pollution from UK waste exports

British plastic waste keeps being exported to third countries. Much of it ends unrecycled, badly incinerated, on foreign landfills, burned in the open or blown into the ocean? Here is why and how we must track Britain’s responsibility in polluting foreign soil.

Campaigner found British plastic waste exports on the coastline of Adana province, Turkey. A recent study by WWF finds that the Cilician coastline (above) suffers more plastic pollution than any other stretch of the Mediterranean (Sentinel 2 data, 2021 — Tracking ocean plastic in Turkey’s Adana province, where Greenpeace visited, with open-source satellite Sentinel 2 ‘Ocean Plastic Detector Prototype Script’, image: TJ)

a per-capita basis, Brits rank second in using the most plastic, just behind Americans, according to a study published in Advances Science last year. What does the UK do with all the plastic waste? Much of it is exported, with a seemingly clean conscience by the government, critics say.

Anything that can’t be recycled or adequately incinerated, shouldn’t be exported in the first place. British plastic waste that isn’t recycled often lands in foreign landfills and the ocean, affecting humans and animals at sea and land.

If plastic exported waste is incinerated, it’s often burned in the open in poorer countries, affecting the health of those living near.

Over the past years, the amount of plastic waste generated and exported from Western rich nations like the US and the UK to coastal environments spiralled. This means British plastic ends up in the ocean. Non-OECD countries had long enough. Now, Turkey threw in the towel.

Every so often, there are seismic shifts in how Britain treats its plastic waste problem. We just witnessed two major ones, in short successions. For sending British plastic waste to poorer countries, the UK government was harshly criticised. Facing tougher restrictions in southeast Asia, UK exporters reverted to sending more to Turkey, an OECD member. In 2020, Turkey was Britain’s most important export destinations (39 per cent), followed by Malaysia (12 per cent), Poland (7 per cent) and the Netherlands (7 per cent).

Seismic shift: In January, UK exports to Malaysia suddenly shrunk to a mere trickle. Waste recycling exports to OECD countries, which includes Turkey, exploded

The next shift for Britain came when Turkey imposed stricter waste import laws at the beginning of the year. Some of the British waste arrived illegally, breaching Turkey’s new rules. Britain doubled down. In February UK exports figures to Turkey suddenly jumped to 30.4 million kilograms per month from 14m in January, according to UK trade data.

Then there was the damming Greenpeace report last week on Britains latest waste export frenzy to the country, published last week. Shortly after, Turkey responded by banning plastic waste imports for good, in a similar fashion as China did in 2018.

Simon Ellin from the UK Recycling Association tells me that it wasn’t a surprise that Turkey has now taken further actions. Part of it might have been the mounting critical reports surfacing over the past three years, pointing out how Turks and their waste sector suffered under British waste.

Then earlier this year, via new restrictions, Turkey further limited the types of material that Britain could export. They changed the waste codes they accepted, to one that only includes non-mechanically treated materials, Ellin says. “In theory, this should have improved the quality but I don’t think it worked and countries, including the UK, continued to export material under the old code. Substandard materials [kept] arriving”.The legal breach triggered Turkey to shut down imports completely.

Part of Britain’s fault was poor monitoring. “The Environment Agency is so badly under-resourced that they don’t have enough inspectors to monitor what goes out. Neither does Turkey”, Ellin says. “Turkey has not been looking closely enough at the material that’s been arriving”, he thinks.

Turkey takes some blame in other ways. It’s the only country that has not adopted amendments to the Basel Convention, one insider says. “This is strange. If Turkey really wants to control things [plastic waste, that comes in], that would be the first step, to adopt this amendment”, Jim Puckett, executive director at the Basel Action Network, US-based waste tracking NGO.

Locations Greenpeace visited for its Trashed report (all in the Adana province)

The Greenpeace report appears instrumental to Turkey’s new ban. We took a closer look at it. Greenpeace visited ten sites around the city of Adana in March. It’s not an exhaustive list but they offer a glimpse into the kind of sites where British waste is dumbed. Ellin thinks Greenpeace’s images showed waste that is ‘outthrows’, signalling to him that Turkey’s illegal operators don’t have a proper waste management system in place to handle it.

Satellite analysis

Historical satellite data for some of the sites showed their development accelerated, particularly last year. It coincides with a huge jump in plastic waste sent to Turkey — plastic waste shipped to Turkey in 2020 surged by 36 per cent compared with 2019.

At the same time, many southeast Asian economies started to impose import bans and limitations, with more expected this year.

Satellite imagery for a waste site near Kuyumcular, Seyhan, a village in the district of Seyhan, in Adana, shows it expanding last year. By the end of 2020, a small hill of ash-black waste piles emerges. British recycling waste was found. In one image by Greenpeace, a landfill fire is still burning. The health-related consequences for the nearby population could be severe. Villagers only live less than half a kilometre west of the site.

Location (37.032778, 35.161389)
Development of a waste site in Turkey in 2020 where campaigners found British plastic waste.

Another site east of Adana city (see below), which was merely an agricultural field four years earlier, developed since 2017 into a 13,000 square metre larger waste dump.

Location (36.972222, 35.446111

Incinerating plastic waste illegally or without dedicated incineration plants affects those inhaling the toxic air. In 2019, journalists found British waste in an illegal plant near Penang, a Malaysian state, in the nearby town Sungai Petani, in Kedah. Greenpeace documented a 30-per cent rise in people affected by respiratory disease within the city.

Britain’s new plastic waste dilemma

With Malaysia and Vietnam increasingly curb waste imports, Poland sending illegal waste back to the UK, and now Turkey’s ban, Britain faces a new waste dilemma. The changes could exacerbate illegal British waste exports, too. Either way, Turkey’s ban is a big major wake-up call for the government, Ellin thinks.

What few options has the UK, now? Ellin says it’s probably now a matter for domestic energy incineration, “at least in the short run”. In the medium term, Britain’s best option is radically cutting down plastic waste. Greenpeace demands a complete ban on all plastic waste exports by no later than 2025. Also, by 2025, the UK government should use the Environment Bill to set legally binding targets to reduce single-use plastic by 50 per cent by 2025 and introduce mandatory corporate reporting on plastic reduction.

Ellin says these targets sound fair and feasible. We should get fairly close to what Greenpeace is advocating for but more importantly, it will shape the government’s focus, he says.

Better tracking

Tracking UK’s plastic waste across borders, all the way from disposal to foreign landfills (or recycling or incineration plants), remains tough. It’s complicated because the British government officially doesn’t recognise their waste to end up in any foreign landfills. Unless plastic waste is being recycled or incinerated in an energy-from-waste plant aboard, it’s even deemed illegal for export. Greenpeace critiqued this, saying that Britain “optimistically counts all exported plastic waste as recycled”.

To improve tracking plastic waste, researchers and advocacy groups increasingly turn to modern technology. The Seattle based NGO Basel Action Network (BAM), a hazardous material exports watchdog, deploys their EarthEye Tracking Service which includes sturdy GPS trackers, to follow plastic waste around. This year, it wants to track plastic waste exports across borders. In 2019, CBC News, a Canadian broadcaster, used those covert GPS trackers for a plastic waste investigation.

GPS trackers in plastic waste

Researcher and activists have used new technical approached to find illegal dumpsites across the world, including in Turkey.

With instructions from a data scientist (Guilhermeiab Lonovski), one approach is to train a classification model for illegal waste sites across Turkey with open-source satellite data in Google Earth Engine, a cloud computing platform for processing satellite imagery and other geospatial and observation data. The model uses colours of typical waste sites. A number of false positives emerged. However, this allowed us to garner a more manageable list of locations that we then could study by hand, going through it one-by-one using Google Earth Pro.

A viable link to ocean plastic in the region [Turkey]

Plastic from landfills ashore blown or transferred into the ocean remains a huge problem, partly because it’s so hard to track. Few dared to established viable links to exporting countries like the UK. Puckett at BAM says that he keeps hearing that coastal sites, or those near rivers flowing into a marine environment, receiving foreign waste, are not an issue. However, “common sense suggests it’s certainly a contributing factor to marine pollution”.

One of the sites where Greenpeace found plastic from Europe is at the beach near the little coastal village of Tuzla (see below). We can see that plumes of possible plastic waste pollution.

Note: We have to accommodate for possible false positives. Dr Lauren Biermann at the UK Plymouth Marine Laboratory told a BBC reporter in 2019 that floating debris tends to aggregate in the eddies, fronts and plumes that form as river water enters the sea. But often, this will just be plant material, rubbish such as plastic will also be drawn in.

The location (36.681667, 35.066944) where Greenpeace found foreign plastic waste coincides with a location troubled with ocean plastic observed from space (Sentinel 2 images, 2021). A recent study by WWF found that the Cilician coastline (the stretch south of Adana) suffers more plastic pollution than any other stretch of the Mediterranean.
Monthly changes in ocean plastic detected by the ‘Ocean Plastic Detector Prototype Script’

Greenpeace tells us that it found evidence of dumped plastic sliding down banks into waterways that lead to the coast in Turkey. “It is most likely that plastic is carried to the coastline from the canals, rivers and streams in Adana and is then blown to the lagoon, beach and Mediterranean Sea”.

Satellite images tell another concerning tale of the Adana province. Remote sensing technology can spot flowing plastic in water bodies.

The Adana region has been particularly plagued by plastic pollution, Greenpeace writes. The River Seyhan, which runs through the centre of Adana, and the River Ceyhan, which runs to its southeast, are collectively responsible for 9% of the plastic pollution entering the Mediterranean each year — second only to the Nile.55

A paper by researchers at the Plymouth Marine Laboratory, published by Nature found last year it’s feasible to detect floating aggregations of plastic on sub-pixel scales at an accuracy rate of 86 per cent. The researchers used open source Sentinel 2 images which I used to apply around and near the coast of the Adana province where Greenpeace visited. My findings show a worrying degree of ocean plastic in the waterways and near the coast (floating plastic in yellow).

Overview of a plastic-polluted coastline, south of the city of Adana (Author of the Sentinel 2 script: Bence Mélykúti, a graduate from Oxford University. Notes: The script is adapted to Sentinel-2 Level-1C images. It separates land from water using the Normalised Difference Water Index (NDWI). It displays land in natural colour. On the water, it should display the presence of plastic in the water on a dark blue/yellow scale, with dark blue representing no contamination. Mélykúti’s prototype does not work reliably but it is a proof of principle in an emerging and pressing area with current, active research. It probably works best, where it gives the least false positives, around Lesbos, Greece, where most data originated from.)

While the UK government is scrambling to find its feet, Greenpeace welcomes Turkey’s change of heart. “It is excellent news that the Turkish government has finally responded to years of calls from local campaigners”, Sam Chetan-Welsh says, a campaigner at Greenpeace UK.

However, the underlying problem remains. “We need a complete ban on all plastic waste exports and legislation to make UK companies reduce the amount of plastic they produce in the first place”, he demands.

Investigative journalist with a technical edge, interested in open source investigations, satellite imgs, R, python, AI, data journalism and injustice