What happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object? With EU production of plastic waste showing no sign of slowing down and China – the world’s biggest importer of plastic waste – set to ban imports, we’re about to find out, argues Meadhbh Bolger.
Meadhbh Bolger is a member of the Rethink Plastic Alliance
Across Europe on 1 January, the rubbish is going to start piling up. But unlike years gone by, it won’t just be the leftovers from festive excess – we’re going to need to find a new home for the almost three million tonnes of plastics that the EU has been exporting every year to China.
While our plastic recycling rates are on the rise – jumping to 30% in 2015 from 19% eight years previously – this hides a murky reality. 40% of plastics collected for recycling in the EU are exported, mainly to Asian countries where they are often recycled under precarious conditions and at lower standards.
These exports increased by a massive 413% between 2002 and 2015, with the vast majority (87% in 2012) ending up in China. The Chinese government announced in July that it will ban plastic waste imports from 2018, purportedly to reduce waste smuggling and strengthen recycling of their domestic waste.
With China being overwhelmingly the biggest player in the market, this declaration is shaking recycling systems globally.
The EU finds itself at a crossroads: will it keep farming out the impacts of our plastic overconsumption to be dealt with in Asia – or do the responsible thing and confront the problem at home? This is one of the questions that the European Commission must take on in the upcoming Strategy on Plastics, expected in December.
The fate of exported plastic waste
Firstly, there’s a strong argument to be made that Plastics Strategy or no Plastics Strategy, the EU should stop exporting waste, because it likely isn’t recycling as we know it.
According to EU regulations, exported plastics must be recycled to the same standards as in the EU. However, in reality there is a worrying lack of transparency and accountability throughout the entire chain. Exports for recycling are managed by customs authorities so notifications to national governments or EU bodies are not required, and customs data provides no information about what will happen to the material once it reaches its destination.
All of this leads to a lack of reliable evidence on the fate of plastic waste when it reaches its destination: is it finally recycled at equivalent standards to the EU? Evidence suggests that for most cases, it is not.
Zooming in on the main importing countries, recycling tends to rely heavily on the informal sector, with processing carried out using low-tech equipment and practices, and often without any environmental or human health protection. Such operations clearly fall well below standards in Europe.
Dealing with our waste has become yet another way in which Europe exports its problems to third countries, externalising the costs and impacts.
It’s time for the EU to get real
Although it might be a headache in the short term, the Chinese ban presents us with an opportunity to kick our plastic export habit, and tackle our overconsumption in Europe.
The worst-case-scenario is a tweaked version of the status quo: we do nothing to address waste generation, redirect waste exports to India, Malaysia, Vietnam or Indonesia, and continue to shift the burden of our waste management.
Another bleak option is that we cut exports, but end up sending more plastic waste to incinerators, or landfills in Europe – a potential disaster for the climate, the local environment and attempts to further boost domestic recycling.
A more positive scenario is that European decision-makers and the plastics industry are forced to see the Chinese ban as a wake-up call – an opportunity to rethink the way we produce, consume and dispose of plastics in Europe and indeed worldwide.
This means not only investing in better domestic recycling infrastructure and designing out unrecyclable plastics, but working further upstream to prevent the huge quantities of plastic waste being generated in the first place.
Recycling will always only go so far to address the problem of plastic pollution. Prevention is better than cure – by reducing the amount of plastics put on to the market, costs and resources for downstream management, including exports, will be saved.
There is no better time than now for the EU to act. With the publication of the EU Strategy on Plastics in a Circular Economy approaching by the end of the year, the European Commission needs to step up and take greater responsibility and accountability for its impacts on other countries and to reduce and close the material loop.
For a lively debate on this topic, we invite you to join Rethink Plastic’s talk show on Monday 6 November 18:00-20:00 at OuiBar in Brussels, hosted in partnership with Plastics Recyclers Europe: “A new dawn – can the EU adapt to global plastic recycling realities?” Find out more and register here.