‘Dirty trade' challenges EU vision of recycling society

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While the EU seeks to curb its import dependency on raw materials through better re-use and recycling, the bloc remains a top exporter of all sorts of waste – including paper, plastics and metals.

Instead of being re-used in Europe, waste resources are increasingly being shipped overseas to fuel booming Asian economies, despite Brussels' push to promote waste as a valuable commodity. 

Europe's rising waste export is not confined to illegal hazardous materials, which made headlines when it emerged that poor workers in India have been dismantling rubbish from batteries to used warships containing Asbestos.

Exports also relate to the legal shipments of non-hazardous wastes such as metals, paper and plastic. These do not need to be notified as they have an economic value and represent a useful source of secondary raw material for emerging economies.

According to a 2008 report by the European Environment Agency (EEA), the volume of these exports has increased significantly between 1995 and 2005, particularly to China and the Far East.

While China is the dominant player of the major Asian economies, India and Indonesia are also sourcing materials from the EU to fuel domestic industries.

In the EU-15, exports of waste paper alone increased from 1.2 to 7.8 million tonnes during that period – with exports to China rising from almost zero to 4.5 million tonnes.

For waste plastics, the rise was from 0.2 to 1.6 million tonnes, of which half was sent to China and Hong Kong. According to the EEA, the most significant type of waste plastic exported – over 1 million tonnes– is of parings and scrap plastic from polymers of ethylene.

The four main categories of waste metals being exported are iron and steel, copper, aluminium and nickel. But much more is being exported in the form of electronic waste such as mobile phones and laptops.

For waste iron and steel, exports went from 6.7 to 8.1 million tonnes and the export of waste copper, aluminium and nickel from the EU-25 was almost 1.6 million tonnes in 2005.

Drivers of waste export

Factors driving waste exports are numerous and the EU's environmental rules and standards are seen as an incentive as proper recycling at home can be expensive.

The bloc’s laws governing waste disposal require more recycling for all sorts of waste streams such as paper and plastic, and seek to prohibit dumping in landfills.  Incineration is also heavily taxed in most of Europe.

The cheapest option available may be to simply ship the waste away to countries where health and environmental standards for recycling as well as labour costs are significantly lower.

But it is not only about opting for cheaper treatment outside the EU.

Economic growth and the related increasing costs of virgin raw materials and fossil fuels have also created a higher price for secondary raw materials, increasing the international market for recovered metals, paper, glass, and special kinds of plastics (PET) of high quality, the EEA notes.

And in a number of countries imports of copper and other scrap metals, for example, are tax free.

An important factor for the EU waste exports to China is the rather low price of the transport: container ships filled with consumer goods from China  to European ports might well travel back empty if they are not transformed into a profitable return cargo filled with waste for reprocessing.

According to the EEA, a loaded 40-foot container can be shipped from the EU to Hong Kong for some €500, helping China and other Asian economies cost-effectively satisfy their demand for paper, plastic and other materials from the EU’s industrial and municipal waste streams.

As investigated by the UK newspaper, The Guardian, this trade is actually “starving some local recycling initiatives of materials and putting established firms out of business or at risk” in Europe. Whereas expanding national recycling industry would be good for the environment, create local jobs and boost green technologies.

Exporting energy through waste

Patrick de Schrynmakers, secretary general of the European Aluminium Association (EAA), argued that with its scrap exports Europe is also exporting cheap energy and helping China to decrease greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

Aluminium scrap, for example, is a highly energy containing material, as 95% less energy is needed when it is recycled, compared to producing aluminium from virgin bauxite.

De Schrynmakers told EurActiv that compared to other commodities, there is no shortage of aluminium in China and they could easily produce all they need, but “their limitation is electricity, energy.”

“Energy is the key and that is precisely where they [Chinese] have problems,” de Schrynmakers said, adding that when coupling the lack of energy with China’s desire to produce less greenhouse gas emissions, “you can understand why they seek to buy all scrap available”.

He also deplored the fact that China is subsidising the use of scrap, with full VAT rebates for imported aluminium scrap. “Last year, China imported 3.7 million tons of scrap – pitifully enough – most of it from Europe,” he said.

And while the industry wants to increase its recycling rates in Europe to lower its environmental footprint, de Schrynmakers noted that “it would be particularly unpleasant to see that if we increase our collection rates, then the recycling goes and happens in China.”

He also noted that Europe used to be a net importer of aluminium scrap – importing, for example, almost all of Russia’s aluminium scrap until Russia put a 50% export duty on it - but is now a significant net exporter.

The industry would like to see quotas or export duties adopted for the export of EU scrap. De Schrynmakers criticised European authorities for merely saying: “We cannot do it because we need to show a good example. We cannot criticise others for doing something while we are doing it ourselves.”

Positions: 

Timeline: 
  • 2013-2014: Commission to table new initiatives to stimulate the secondary materials market and demand for recycled materials by introducing economic incentives and end-of-waste criteria.
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