The exportation of plastic waste outside the European Union: what solutions?


The amount of plastic waste sold everyday around the world is tremendous. The EU (European Union) is exporting the plastic waste because it does not have enough capacities to recycle and treat all the plastic thrown. As a result, the exportation makes plastic pollution expand more rapidly. However, since China decided to ban the importation of plastic waste and with the recent toughening of the United Nation Basel Convention, it became harder to export plastic waste. This will hopefully push policymakers to improve the management of their own plastic in the EU.


The plastic waste trade crisis

Plastic used to be considered as a great innovation for decades. Indeed, it became quickly ubiquitous in our day to day life. Why is that? For companies, plastic is practical, light, cheap to make, easy to transform as well as to customize, and can last for a long time. It is only in recent years that we figured out that plastic waste has negative impacts on the biodiversity, health and that it contributes to the global pollution if it is mismanaged.

Here some numbers to understand how serious the issue of the plastic is:

  • Around 150 000 tons of plastic waste is exported outside the EU each month.
  • From 1988 to 2016, 168 million tons of plastic waste was exported from rich countries to more poor countries.
  • Since 1950 the annual global production has grown from 2 to 380 million tones nowadays. This number could double by 2035 and quadruple by 2050.
  • Only 17% of the 30 million tons of plastic waste each year in Europe are recycled or reused.


The reasons why the EU is exporting its plastic waste

The European Environment Agency (EEA) affirmed that “Europe still lack capacity to reuse, recycle and collect all of its plastic waste and therefore turns to exportation”.

Indeed, countries in the EU are lacking capacities concerning the management of plastic waste. They do not have enough technical materials to include all the plastic waste in the circular economy, in other words to “reuse, recycle,recover” plastic waste. Moreover, as exporting is usually cheaper than recycling, environmental considerations are put aside.


Consequences of China’s plastic waste importation ban

 Before 2018, China was considered as the “Global North’s dumping ground”. That is why a new policy came into force in the country in order to ban most of the plastic waste importation.

In that case we are asking ourselves where all the plastic waste from the EU goes? In south East Asia, in countries like India, Indonesia, Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia, Thailand. The EEA is concerned by the situation: “In many of these countries that import plastic waste from Europe, the waste treatment sector is still in its infancy. Imported waste is often not treated in accordance with European standards and can even be burned or landfilled irregularly.”

We do not know exactly how those wastes are treated due to a lack of transparency. Nevertheless, what is clear is that most of it is not recycled. The majority is indeed burned or dumped in landfills irregularly, incinerated or dumped into rivers after a long travel. This contributes to global warming by the emissions of greenhouse gas and to the destruction of the marine environments. Because of those issues, countries that import plastic waste want to send them back to their owners.


Recent changes in the Basel Convention

From the 29th of April to the 10th of may 2019 in Geneva, the members of a United Nations ( UN) convention called  Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and Their Disposal were reunited. They decided to include in this convention “contaminated mixed or hard -to-recycle plastic waste” in order to control the plastic trade in accordance with the convention.

It will allow a better traceability and transparency of plastic waste global flows. Indeed, according to the convention, a prior agreement will be necessary to export cargoes of plastic waste which cannot be recycled. Countries will be able to refuse it if they consider that they do not have the capacity to manage those wastes. At first, the consequence probably will be the intensification of landfilling, but exportation of plastic will decrease. Hence, European countries will not have another choice than investing in “a more circular plastic economy”. This is a big change in the regulation of plastic waste trade.


What Solutions?

Meadhbh Bolger from Friends of the Earth Europe said “It’s time for the Global North to get real. We cannot keep externalizing the costs and impacts of our overconsumption and waste problem to the Global South. We need to kick our plastic export habit and tackle our plastics overconsumption.” 

 Recently and for the first time a brokerage company which sent 20 containers of plastic waste to Malaysia was fined 192 000 euros by France. Malaysia decided to send them back to France.

The main solution that remain after enforcement of the regulation is firstly, to improve recycling in European countries by creating new jobs and technologies and secondly, to reduce our consumption of plastic. The ban of single use plastic is the way to move towards a more climate-friendly plastic waste management.

To conclude, for many years the EU was “exporting the problem” instead of taking care of it. Recently some big steps have been taken. Hopefully the Basel convention will motivate EU countries to better manage their plastic waste and avoid exporting it.





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Mots clés: plastic waste, European Union, trade, exportation, Asia, China, Basel Convention

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