EU sees opportunities for circular economy in plastic waste trade

Exporting plastic waste is becoming increasingly difficult, but this opens new opportunities for reusing and recycling plastic, says the European Environment Agency. More and more plastic packaging waste is being recycled each year.

Up until 2017 China imported large amounts of plastic waste from EU countries. In 2015 alone, China imported 1.7 million tonnes of plastic waste from the EU and Hong Kong an addition 0.78 million tonnes. But in 2018, the two countries largely put an end to these imports.

While some of the plastic waste exports shifted to other countries such as Vietnam and Turkey, exporting plastic waste is becoming increasingly difficult. According to the European Environment Agency (EEA), the EU exported just 150,000 tonnes of plastic waste per month in early 2019, half the amount in previous years.

Instead of treating this as a challenge, the EEA regards the restrictions on plastic waste exports as an opportunity for the circular economy. Although some of the plastic waste that is not exported is likely to end up in landfills in the short term, the larger amounts of plastic waste remaining in the EU can send a clear signal that there is a huge potential to increase the plastic waste reuse and recycling – and prevent plastic waste in the first place.

According to the EEA, the packaging industry is a good example of this. While only 27.7% of plastic packaging waste was recycled in 2007, this figure jumped to 42.4% by 2016. Plastic packaging accounts for more than half of the plastic waste in the EU.

Overall, however, the proportion of recycled or reused plastic waste is still very low: only 17 per cent of the 30 million tonnes of plastic waste generated in the EU is collected for reuse or recycling. More than half – 57% – is incinerated or ends up in landfills.

A ban on single-use plastics will come into effect in the EU from 2021 onwards.

Image credit: Brandon via Flickr/CC BY 2.0



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