Plastic import bans should “trigger investment” to increase recycling

Bans and restrictions on plastic imports are forcing the EU and other countries to improve their own capacities to handle the waste at home, according to the European Environment Agency (EEA).

Member states face a “dilemma” on how to deal with the millions of tonnes of waste generated in Europe every year, the EEA says.

It says there is “huge potential” to increase reuse and recycling in Europe.

Amid a growing number of bans and tougher international rules on the export of certain waste to other countries, there is growing concern over the impact of such waste on the environment and health, as well as the impact of increased resource extraction, production and consumption.

Two EEA briefings provide an assessment of the role of plastic waste export in the circular economy and a snapshot of resource losses from waste management – the latter looking specifically at waste from electrical and electronic equipment, end-of-life batteries, plus textile and plastic waste.

Plastic exports

In early 2019, the EU exported about 150 000 tonnes of plastic waste per month. This is around half the amount exported in 2015 and 2016, when exports went primarily to China and Hong Kong.

However, new bans and restrictions on imports by China, combined with a number of banned types of plastic being added to a United Nations convention, are forcing the EU and countries to improve their own capacities to handle the waste at home, the EEA says.

These bans and restrictions and a shrinking international market for plastics will likely increase landfilling and incineration in the short term, it says, but should also “trigger investments” in capacities and systems to increase recycling and reuse of plastic waste.

The EU is still “losing out” on opportunities to reuse a significant amount of valuable resources currently being lost through inefficient waste management practices

The EEA briefing on exports of plastic waste suggest there is “huge potential” to increase reuse and recycling in the coming years.

Reusing and recycling plastic waste could provide a large amount of material resources for local manufacturers, the EEA says.

The briefing notes that the EU has already taken steps to improve the management of plastic production, use and waste, including the European strategy for plastics in the circular economy, the EU’s Single Use Plastics Directive, and new, more ambitious targets for plastic recycling included in the EU’s updated waste directives of 2018.

Sustainable waste management

The EU is still “losing out” on opportunities to reuse a significant amount of valuable resources currently being lost through inefficient waste management practices, the EEA says.

Alongside plastics, millions more of tonnes of electronic waste – like old computers, cameras or TVs, and textiles (mostly clothing) are also regularly thrown away with little to no recycling or repurposing.

“Poor or inadequate collection”, reuse and recycling of these waste streams plus low consumer awareness of the waste problem all need to be addressed in order to improve the situation, the EEA says.

The presence of hazardous substances can also hamper recycling and hence opportunities to move to increased circularity, as do products not properly designed for recycling.

Reducing loss of resources

Key messages

  • Large fractions of valuable resources are lost during waste management because of inefficient waste collection, consumer behaviour and a lack of awareness, market-related aspects, technological barriers, design complexities and the hazardous nature of embedded materials.
  • Increasing resource extraction poses considerable risks to the environment and human health, e.g. resource depletion, pollution of air, water and soil, climate change and loss of biodiversity.
  • Loss of resources is also associated with loss of critical raw materials that are fundamental to the functioning of key industrial sectors and applications.
  • Reducing resource losses is essential to ensure our well-being and strengthen the circular economy in Europe.
  • Existing frameworks that assess material circularity are inexact, which makes it difficult to monitor progress on the circular economy.

Plastic waste trade in the circular economy

Key messages

  • Annual global plastic production has increased from 2 to 380 million tonnes since 1950 and is projected to double by 2035 and almost quadruple by 2050. European countries lack the capacity to manage growing amounts of plastic waste in circular and sustainable ways.
  • In early 2019, the EU exported around 150 000 tonnes of plastic waste per month. This figure was about twice as high in 2015 and 2016 – up to 300.000 tons monthly – when exports went to China and Hong Kong primarily. Import restrictions are the reason for the decrease and shift in exports of plastic waste to other countries in Asia.
  • Poor management of plastic waste has negative environmental and climate effects, such as deposits of plastic and microplastics appearing on land and in rivers and oceans worldwide. Plastic contributes to climate change through greenhouse gas emissions from production and from waste management, and to harmful effects from chemicals and water use. There is little knowledge or transparency about how plastic waste imported from the EU is managed in other countries.
  • Recent restrictions on imports of plastic waste in China, combined with some types of plastic being added to the Basel Convention, is likely to further decrease EU exports. This poses the risk of increased incineration and landfilling of plastic waste in Europe. The EU must find circular and climate-friendly ways of managing its plastic waste e.g. by increasing reuse and recycling.

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