As a result of more stringent standards, recycling of plastic packaging is set to fall in the EU. Without better industrial capacity, the EU will not reach its 50% target in five years’ time. And illegal exports are likely to increase.
The EU is facing a growing problem in managing its plastic waste, warns a report by the European Court of Auditors. The main issue is the biggest component of the waste – packaging. Its production is growing steadily and last year was around 18 million tonnes. Packaging accounts for just over 60 percent of total plastic waste in Europe. And while the lifespan of plastic stretches over centuries, 40 percent of the EU’s plastic production is destined for packaging that will be thrown away.
But from 1 January 2021 the management of this waste will be seriously complicated for European operators. An amendment to the Basel Convention on the export of hazardous waste, adopted in May 2019, comes into force on that date. Most plastics have hitherto been included on the list of non-hazardous waste, known as the “Green List”. From now on, only recyclable materials that are uncontaminated, pre-sorted, free of any non-recyclable material and prepared for immediate recycling in an environmentally sound manner will be eligible for inclusion on the Green List.
Exporting plastic waste
This will make it more difficult to export plastics for recycling to Asia. Exports have already fallen by almost half since 2016, when China began to close its market, a move now completed. China no longer wants to be “the world’s bin” and has tightened its standards on the quality of the materials it imports for recycling. This is also a way of regulating the trade and making room for the processing of its own plastic waste. As a result, European exports have shifted to less exigent countries, mainly Malaysia and Turkey. But with the entry into force of the amendment to the Basel Convention next January, these outlets could in turn dry up.
The loss of the Chinese market in 2017-2018, followed by the probable restrictions from 2021 with the welcome tightening of the Basel Convention – this situation further complicates the achievement of the new objectives that the EU has set itself. In 2018, the EU revised its directive on packaging and packaging waste and the aim now is to achieve a 50 percent recycling rate for plastic packaging by 2025 and 55 percent by 2030. The previous target – 22.5 percent in 2008 – has been met and far exceeded. Today, Europe as a whole has a 41 percent recycling rate for its plastic packaging