Recyclers fret as EU plastic waste export ban comes into force

The EU’s announcement coincides with a decision by China to ban all imports of waste from abroad, which becomes effective also as of 1 January. [jantsarik / Shutterstock]

New EU rules came into force on 1 January, prohibiting the shipment of unsorted plastic waste to foreign countries. Although the move will increase pressure on Europe to recycle, activists say the ban is likely to increase landfilling and waste burning inside the Union.

The new rules, announced on 22 December, ban the export of plastic waste outside Europe, except for clean plastic waste sent for recycling, the European Commission said in a statement.

“The export of unsorted plastic waste to non-OECD countries will be completely banned,” said Virginijus Sinkevičius, the EU’s environment commissioner.

“These new rules send a clear message that in the EU we are taking responsibility for the waste we generate,” he added, saying the shipment of plastic waste within the EU will also be more strictly controlled.

The EU’s announcement coincides with a decision by China to ban all imports of waste from abroad, which becomes effective also as of 1 January. China used to be the world’s biggest recipient of overseas trash but started phasing out imports as of 2018, citing environmental and health concerns.

“The victory of realising the goal of zero imports of solid waste is in sight,” said Qiu Qiwen, a senior official who was quoted in a statement posted on the website of the Chinese Ministry of Ecology and Environment. Qiwen said he expects the ban will end China’s recycling industry’s addiction to waste imports and bring the country’s focus back to recycling more of the waste produced in its domestic market.

In Europe too, recyclers believe that banning exports will create “opportunities” to stimulate recycling at home. Recycled PET, a resin used in the manufacturing of plastic bottles, could reach as much as 55% of total PET demand by 2030, the industry says, citing “significant improvements” in recycling processes over the last years.

“This is particularly evident for food-grade rPET used in bottle-to-bottle processes, where incentives such as the producers’ voluntary pledges and rPET content targets set in the EU Single Use Plastics Directive (25% by 2025) are set to further accelerate the production,” says Plastic Recyclers Europe, a trade association.

However, achieving higher recycling rates will require building new facilities, said Plastics Recyclers Europe, a process that is likely to take years, not months.

“New recycling capacities must grow to accommodate the new tonnages and to equally fulfil the new EU recycling targets,” PRE told EURACTIV in emailed comments. “Solutions do exist and the opportunities linked to the restrictions on plastic waste exports should not go unexploited,” the association said.

“Scam recycling”

In the meantime, however, most of the plastic waste generated in Europe is likely to end up being burned or dumped in landfills.

“Unfortunately, Europe doesn’t have the necessary recycling infrastructure in place,” said Janek Vähk from Zero Waste Europe, an environmental pressure group. “The risk is that some of this plastic waste will end up being incinerated,” he told EURACTIV, saying there are currently not enough incentives to invest in new recycling facilities.

What’s more, not all the plastic waste exported outside Europe was meant for recycling in the first place, Vähk says, calling out a practice described as “scam recycling”.

“A big share of the exported waste was unsorted or of lower quality,” Plastics Recyclers Europe explains, saying the EU’s new restrictions on waste shipment “highlights the necessity of separate collection and advanced sorting” to boost recycling rates in Europe.

In addition, lower quality plastic waste undermines the recycling process, and increases the likelihood that recycled materials will be contaminated with old plastics containing toxic substances which are now banned in Europe.

“What does this mean in practice? The lower the quality of waste, the lower the quality of the recycled material will be, which in turn will have an impact on the end applications for this type of recyclates,” PRE explains.

In fact, boosting recycling rates requires waste to be carefully sorted in the first place, PRE argues, pointing out that efficient recycling requires high quality waste to be transformed back into a high-quality product.

Fixing plastic collection seen as vital to success of chemical recycling

Two billion people worldwide do not have access to proper waste collection services, leading to ever-growing plastic pollution in oceans and waterways, particularly in the global south.

Design for recycling

At some point, any attempt to significantly grow recycling rates in Europe will also require imposing new standards on manufacturers to ensure products can be more easily recycled at their end of life.

“Design for recycling is yet another element to allow for high quality and cost-efficient recycling,” Plastics Recyclers Europe says. “These elements are indispensable to divert the new tonnages away from landfills and incineration.”

The quality of recycling is also a key concern for the plastics industry. “Secondary raw materials such as recyclable plastic waste must be traded through properly controlled channels,” says Virginia Janssens from PlasticsEurope, a trade association. “They must be sorted and recycled in facilities operating to the highest quality environmental and safety standards,” she told EURACTIV.

PlasticsEurope says it supports procedures in the EU Waste Shipment Regulation allowing plastic waste to be moved more freely around Europe. And to ensure only quality waste is moved around, Janssens says it must be shipped only to certified facilities that are subject to audits.

“For example, plastic bales must be prepared to a set of specifications, combined with standardised testing and verification protocols to ensure that no residues end up in the environment,” she told EURACTIV.

But doing that will also require streamlining bureaucratic procedures across EU countries. “We believe it is important to remove current administrative burdens to waste shipment within the EU, such as simplifying existing notification procedures and harmonising processes,” Janssens says.

In the meantime though, the EU’s export ban means plastic waste is only going to pile up in warehouses across Europe before they are sent for incineration or landfill.

In Bulgaria, the poorest EU country, imported plastic waste is often dumped in illegal landfills or sent for burning in coal power plants which are not equipped for such activity.

“As a last resort, I’d consider landfilling instead of incineration, so as to store fossil carbon in landfills in line with the EU agenda of decarbonisation,” Vähk says.

Plastic waste: how to square the circle

The EU’s circular economy plan aims to halve municipal waste in the next decade by increasing recycling rates. Can companies boost the use of recycled plastics in time to meet the target?

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