Regulating green list waste exports


SEPA’s Producer Compliance & Waste Shipment Unit Manager, Colin Morrow, has recently been engaging with the Scottish Environmental Services Association (SESA), the Recycling Association and the Scottish Local Authority waste managers network on the export of waste paper and plastic.

Green list wastes are lower environmental risk wastes that include dry recyclables wastes such as paper and plastic.

We are aware of concerns in the industry regarding a recent rise in enforcement action in relation to green list wastes, a perceived ‘zero tolerance’ approach to contamination of the waste among inspecting officers, and a lack of a definitive maximum allowable level of contamination.

Colin’s recent presentations to these groups aimed to address these points and reinforce our position on the regulation of green list waste exports.

Colin Morrow delivering presentation on waste exports

Colin Morrow delivering presentation on waste exports

Contamination thresholds

We have implemented a waste flow approach to the regulation of green list waste shipments, looking at the whole supply chain, which has led to an improved success rate in identifying illegal shipments. Our approach aims to better understand the issues affecting quality, identify the correct stage to intervene, and better target the higher risk exports.

We do not enforce against a percentage contamination limit and have never taken a ‘zero tolerance’ approach to green list shipments. We assess loads based on the quantity and nature of the contamination. For example, contamination of paper or plastic by higher risk wastes such as food waste, waste electrical and electronic equipment, clinical waste, waste fines and hazardous waste present a greater environmental risk than contamination consisting of other dry recyclable waste such as aluminium cans.

We find it difficult to envisage how a maximum percentage contamination limit would be helpful to the industry. Neither the UK nor the EC regulations specify a contamination limit and a Scottish limit may differ from the position taken by receiving countries.

Further, there are practical difficulties of how such a limit could deal with non-dry recyclable contamination without resorting to either a zero tolerance approach to these waste types or setting extremely small percentages for these higher risk waste types. This would become impractical and onerous for both industry and the regulator to measure.

We are willing to work with materials recycling facilities (MRFs) and waste brokers to provide specific guidance on whether the bales of waste they produce for export are suitable. This would involve our officers arranging to sample representative waste produced by a specific MRF to provide a view as to its suitability for export.

SEPA staff inspecting a container

SEPA staff inspecting a container

Some of the most frequently asked questions we receive about our regulation of green list waste exports are below. Click on the question to find out more.

We want Scotland to be recognised across the world for producing the highest quality secondary materials with strong demand from manufacturing industries. This supports Scotland’s ambition of being a zero waste society contributing to a global circular economy. The export of highly contaminated loads not only places an environmental burden on other countries but hurts the domestic waste industry both by reputation and materially through uncompetitive practice.

We want every actor in the supply chain from producer to exporter to understand how their actions affect quality. We are mapping the flow of paper and plastic and have a much better understanding of what affects final quality than ever before. We want to use this to work with the industry to improve material quality, tackle poor performance and level the playing field. We believe this is in everyone’s interest.

We have changed its approach to regulating exports of waste paper and plastic. In the past, we made random port inspections to check containers intended for export but we didn’t believe we were seeing the whole picture. We needed to take a more evidence based and intelligence led approach to make the best use of our limited resources and achieve our objectives.

To do this we implemented a ‘cradle to grave’ approach, looking at the whole material supply chain to better understand the issues affecting quality, identifying the correct stage to intervene and to better target the highest risk containers at port.

Since implementing this approach we have carried out over 150 site audits and held discussions with 25 waste brokers and 20 local authorities and it is clear from these discussions that the majority of exported waste paper and plastic is of good quality. There is a high level of variability though and we have used the audits to assess the producer/MRF/broker combinations and target what we consider to be the highest risk containers at port.

We have also targeted over 100 high risk containers of paper, plastic and cardboard for inspection with around a quarter of these stopped and returned to the site of loading. It is this improved method of detection that has led to the increase in enforcement action.

We have not changed the goalposts – we have just got better at finding the worst containers.

SEPA has never taken a ‘zero tolerance’ approach to green list waste shipments. We aim to target higher risk loads and assess each based on the quantity and nature of the contamination. We then take a considered view as to the most proportionate course of action which can range from the provision of advice, through to warnings, statutory notices and, in the worst cases, referral to the procurator fiscal.

Our formal enforcement action is not focussed on a few aluminium cans in a load of waste cardboard; in the worst cases we have uncovered evidence of gross contamination with food waste, hazardous waste, electrical waste and dirty nappies mixed with green list waste.

To illustrate this further, of the 100 containers inspected in the last year, 75 were allowed to leave the country despite each of them showing visible signs of contamination. These were followed with advice where appropriate.

Going forward, our priority is to work with waste managers to improve collection, storage, sorting and sampling practices but we will not shy away from taking formal enforcement action in cases of the attempted export of grossly contaminated “green list” waste.

We want to work with the industry and, if requested, will provide process specific guidance on whether the bales produced by an operator are suitable for export. This could, for example, take the form of our officers arranging to sample representative waste produced by a specific MRF to provide a view as to its suitability for export. However, it would be the operator’s responsibility to ensure that waste exported as ‘green list waste’ was suitable for export under that procedure.

We would like to see;

  • MRFs operated on a ‘positive pick’ rather than a ‘negative pick’ basis. ‘Positive pick’ involves removing the target waste from the picking line rather than removing all of the non-target waste which can be more difficult to achieve leading to increased risk of contamination.
  • Robust sampling of inputs and outputs at MRFs and the information used proactively to identify process improvements and tackle collection rounds with high contamination rates.
  • Different wastes stored separately to prevent cross-contamination around the baling equipment.
  • Brokers to enforce the contamination thresholds in their own contracts.

We consider that reducing contamination at source and improving sorting, storage and sampling practices would reduce the risk of repatriation, reduce processing costs, increase material value and help Scotland on its way to becoming a zero waste society.

You can read more about the transfrontier shipment of waste at:



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