A report by the National Audit Office (NAO) criticised Michael Gove’s Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) over its handling of companies’ packaging recycling obligations.
More than 7,000 firms which generate waste are required to demonstrate a certain amount has been recycled.
The watchdog said DEFRA had not done enough to assess how effective the system in place was and that the department had not been “sufficiently proactive” in managing risks linked to the rise in waste exports.
The amount of waste sent overseas to countries such as China, Turkey, Malaysia and Poland has increased sixfold since 2002 – accpunting for half of the packaging reported as recycled last year.
Twelve million tons of packaging was used by households and businesses in the UK and more than two-thirds of waste was reported as recycled in 2017, according to the NAO.
“We are concerned that the agency does not have strong enough controls to prevent the system subsidising exports of contaminated or poor-quality material,” the body said, before adding that there was a risk some waste was “instead sent to landfill or contributes to pollution”.
The watchdog said the system appeared to have “evolved into a comfortable way for government to meet targets without facing up to the underlying recycling issues”.
It added: “The government has no evidence that the system has encouraged companies to minimise packaging or make it easy to recycle.
“And it relies on exporting materials to other parts of the world without adequate checks to ensure this material is actually recycled, and without consideration of whether other countries will continue to accept it in the long-term.”
NAO chief Sir Amyas Morse called for a “tighter grip” on packaging recycling.
“The government should have a much better understanding of the difference this system makes and a better handle on the risks associated with so much packaging waste being recycled overseas,” he said.
In a statement, DEFRA said it was committed to reforming the system in place.
A spokesman said: “Since the current packaging producer responsibility regime was introduced, recycling rates have increased significantly.
“However, there is much more to do. We don’t recycle enough waste, and we export too much of it.
“That’s why we have already committed to overhaul the system, and we will set out our reforms in the resources and waste strategy later this year.”
The report’s findings comes after Sky News’ documentary, Dirty Business, revealed it was more lucrative to export British plastic recycling than process it in the UK.
It raised concerns the system could be inflating recycling rates and failing to channel investment into recycling in Britain.
Environment Secretary Michael Gove had said the UK was “exporting too much waste”.