Europe cracks down on illegal waste exports, eases intra-EU trade

According to the EU executive, illegal trafficking represents up to 30% of all waste shipments in Europe and are worth €9.5 billion annually. [European Union, 2021. Source: EC - Audiovisual Service]

The European Commission put forward new rules on Wednesday (17 November) to crack down on the illegal shipment of waste to foreign countries, while easing procedures to trade recycled materials within the EU’s borders.

The proposed rules, which still need approval from EU countries and the European parliament, are part of Brussels’ plan to reduce pollution and ensure that materials like plastic, textiles and metals are reused and recycled, rather than thrown away.

“The goal is to make the EU take greater responsibility for the waste it produces. That’s not the case today and that’s what needs to change,” said the EU environment policy chief Virginijus Sinkevičius.

“Just think about all that plastic litter that comes from bad waste management,” Sinkevičius said.

If approved, the new regulation will restrict waste exports to non-OECD countries, with shipments “only allowed if third countries are willing to receive certain wastes and are able to manage them sustainably,” the EU executive said.

Waste shipments “will be monitored and can be suspended if they generate serious environmental problems in the country of destination,” the Commission added in a statement.

The EU exported around 33 million tonnes of waste last year, around half of which went to poorer non-OECD countries with weaker waste management rules than in the EU – effectively shipping EU pollution abroad.

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Full digitalisation of all procedures

Within Europe, rules are also being tightened to prevent the trafficking of waste across borders.

According to the EU executive, illegal trafficking represents up to 30% of all waste shipments in Europe and are worth €9.5 billion annually.

Under the Commission’s proposal, the European Anti-Fraud Office OLAF will be empowered to support transnational investigations by EU member states on waste trafficking, and a tougher sanctions regime will be introduced to slap penalties on offenders.

OLAF already tracks down illicit cross-border traffic of dangerous substances and has recently helped Italian authorities stop some 800 tonnes of waste thanks to alerts and sharing of intelligence.

In parallel, simpler procedures would be introduced to make it easier for recycled materials to re-enter the value chain. This will be enabled by the “full digitalisation of all procedures governing the shipments of waste between EU member states,” the EU executive said.

Eurometaux, a trade organisation representing non-ferrous metal industries such as aluminium, copper, lead, nickel, tin, titanium and zinc, said the proposal will ease trade in scrap metal.

“We’re pleased that today’s proposal introduces several necessary measures for easing the transport of waste across member state borders,” said Guy Thiran, director-general of Eurometaux.

According to Eurometaux, shipments of metal-containing waste within Europe currently get delayed by several months due to bureaucratic requirements.

“It’s really welcome that the European Commission has proposed to fast track shipments to ‘pre-consented recovery facilities’ and introduced an electronic system for waste flow registration,” Thiran said.

“Member states must now ensure these new principles are implemented in practice”.

Others were less pleased, however. The European Recycling Industries Confederation (EuRIC) warned against imposing export restrictions on raw materials from recycling, warning they “would remain captive in Europe under these proposals”.

Without legal requirements to use these materials in new products, they will likely end up in landfills, EuRIC warned.

“With only 12% of raw materials used by the EU’s industry coming from recycling, binding requirements to use raw materials form recycling in industrial value chains are urgently needed,” said Emmanuel Katrakis, secretary general of EuRIC.

Metals recycling in EU could collapse under new rules, companies say

Europe’s metals recycling industry could collapse under the European Commission’s proposed changes to waste shipments that clamp down on exports to encourage recycling, members of the Bureau of International Recycling (BIR) have warned.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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