Managed Waste Management: A Growing Export Opportunity for Environmental Businesses?

On December 2013, DEFRA reported that around 15 million tonnes of waste materials are exported from the UK to various other countries for recycling every year. This confirms that there is a potential opportunity for employment and business growth in the recycling industry. This opportunity can be maximised if research is undertaken to identify which parts of the industry can be developed or improved.

International trade

Considering the UK receives around 125million tonnes of imported goods and raw material annually, it is a responsible response to export the waste material that may be recycled and incorporated back into manufacture overseas.

The international trade of waste material for re-use, recycling and recovery improves resource efficiency, aids in meeting recycling goals and reduces global carbon emission levels.  Using these recycled materials for manufacture lends significant savings versus the use of virgin resources and in greenhouse gas emissions had the waste been put in landfills.

Though there is much scope for growth in the export of these waste products for recycling, domestic companies like Lagan Water are also seeing growth in domestic intra-GB trade due to increased environmental and social awareness in business as well as tighter regulation.


Metals comprise the largest volume of material exported for recovery. Paper and cardboard together make the second largest volume of exports, with plastics and glass also in significant volumes. Most of the paper and plastic are exported to China, although the UK also trades with the rest of EU and EFTA countries.

Since iron, steel and aluminium scrap are now classified as ‘secondary raw material’ under the End-of-waste criteria, the recycling of metal is further encouraged. The ease of trading in scrap metal as well as the economic benefit has also been increased.


Refuse derived fuel (RDF) is also exported by the UK to Scandinavia and other parts of Northern Continental Europe. Used for energy recovery, RDF is mixed solid waste that has been pre-treated so it comprises largely of combustible components like plastic and biodegradable waste material. Because of the rising costs of landfills, RDF exports have risen considerably, from zero in 2009 to over 800 thousand tonnes in 2012.

EU regulation

It is important to remember that the EU does not permit waste exports for disposal in a landfill or for incineration. The EU also disallows the export of hazardous waste to developing countries. Non-hazardous waste may only be exported to developing countries for recovery if the receiving country has expressly stated that it agrees to accept the export and has the capability to treat the waste in a facility equal to those in the EU.

Sectors: Waste Management
Countries: United Kingdom
Export Action Plan