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23rd Jan 2021

Green Deal

Reporting rules and export ban threaten EU 2025 plastics target

  • Germany, the UK, Belgium, the Netherlands and Slovenia are the main exporters of plastic waste in the EU (Photo: mbeo)

The European Union is at risk of failing to meet its plastic-packaging recycling targets for 2025 and 2030, the European Court of Auditors (ECA) warned in a report on Tuesday (6 October).

Plastic packaging represents the largest share of plastic waste (61 percent) in the EU - followed by construction and electrical rubbish. On average, 32kg of plastic packaging waste is produced per person per year in the EU.

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  • Main EU countries exporting plastic waste outside EU (Photo: European Court of Auditors based on data from Eurostat)

In 2018, the EU doubled its previous plastic-packaging-waste recycling target from 22.5 percent (meant to be achieved by 2008) to 50 percent by 2025 and 55 percent by 2030.

Until now, member states have measured the quantity of plastic reported at different points in the collection/sorting/recycling process - which resulted in an inaccurately-reported recycling rate.

However, the quantities of plastic packaging waste currently reported will be reduced significantly, following a change in the reporting requirements - which entered into force earlier this year for reporting on the 2025 and 2030 targets.

According to the trade association Plastics Europe, the current EU plastic packaging recycling rate could drop from the current reported 42 percent to about 29 percent.

So far, EU efforts to tackle plastic waste rely on landfill (25 percent), incineration (43 percent) with energy recovery, and recycling (32 percent).

However, according to Samo Jereb, ECA member responsible for the report, "there is a huge need for recycling capacities".

"The EU must reverse the current situation, whereby we incinerate more than we recycle, [but] this is a daunting challenge," he said.

Shipped abroad

EU countries have been increasingly shipping plastic packaging waste for recycling to third countries.

It is estimated that the share of packaging waste of the total plastic waste exports outside the EU has grown from 43 percent in 2012 to 75 percent in 2017.

EU auditors said that this trend suggests that "EU member states are highly reliant on extra-EU recycling to manage their plastic packaging waste" and that, accordingly, shipping for recycling outside the EU plays a key role in reaching EU's recycling targets.

According to EU auditors, Germany, the UK, Belgium, the Netherlands and Slovenia are the main exporters of plastic waste in the EU.

Although Slovenia has seen an increase of 68 percent in plastic waste imports between 2016 and 2019, EU auditors believe that it is still a "transit country".

Meanwhile, the main destinations for EU plastic waste are China (including Hong Kong), Vietnam, Malaysia, Turkey and India.

China was the main country for EU plastic waste export until 2018, accounting for 2.4 million tonnes (77 percent) of total EU plastic waste exported in 2016.

However, China banned imports of plastic waste two years ago, increasing pressure on member states' capacity to manage their plastic packaging waste.

In fact, the European Commission estimates that the EU has facilities to recycle only half of its total plastic waste.

Environmental crimes

Meanwhile, EU auditors warned about a potential increase in environmental crimes, namely illegal waste disposal, since it provides for very high profits for perpetrators and relatively low risks of detection.

An incoming ban on plastic waste exports to poorer nations, combined with the lack of capacity to treat plastic packaging waste within the EU, will likely increase the risks of illegal waste dumping within the bloc's borders and when shipped to third countries, EU auditors said.

Plastic packaging is hugely responsible for environmental littering, which led to the adoption of the EU's single-use plastics directive last year.

A recent study from NUI Galway and the University of Limerick has for the first time quantified the volume of plastic from European countries that contributes to ocean littering from exported recycling.

The results estimated that, in the best-case scenario, about 32,115 tonnes of the most common types of plastic in Europe ended up in the ocean in 2017.

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