If we think about it logically - and the European Environment Agency (EEA) have - bans on plastic imports in the EU must encourage us to handle our own recycling on home turf.
With millions of tonnes of waste generated across Europe each year, we should be harnessing the potential of reuse and recycling as the stricter rules on the export of certain waste abroad become more prevalent.
The EEA published two briefings as an overview of the role of plastic waste exports in the circular economy and of resource losses from waste management (the latter looking specifically at waste from electrical and electronic equipment, end-of-life batteries, plus textile and plastic waste).
A reduction in plastic exports, but not in plastic waste
Plastic exports have reduced over the last few years – in 2019 the EU exported c150,000 tonnes of plastic waste per month – compared with c300,000 in 2015/16 (which predominantly ended up in the Far East). But this will have to reduce even further say the EEA with further restrictions on imports by China and more banned plastics added to the UN convention. So, what is going to happen to this waste?
The EEA says that nations will need to improve their own capability for handling waste in country, which in the short term will mean more landfill and incineration BUT in the longer term could “trigger investment” into different ways of handling the waste in terms of recycling and plastic waste.
This investment could be an excellent way of not only promoting reuse and recycling but could prompt more jobs in the recycling/environment sector and see an increase in the skillsets needed to be more innovative with this waste material.
The briefing notes highlights the European strategy for plastics in the circular economy, the EU’s Single Use Plastics Directive, and new, more ambitious targets for plastic recycling included in the EU’s updated waste directives of 2018.
Sustainable waste management
The EEA also believe the EU is missing a trick in terms of reusing many of the valuable resources currently lost through inefficiency.
It’s not only plastic waste we need to think about. There are millions of tonnes of electronic waste too (e.g. old computers, cameras or TVs) and textiles (predominantly clothing) are also regularly thrown away with hardly any recycling due to lack of awareness of where or how to recycle these elements.
With annual waste production still on the increase and with no signs of slow down, European countries need to find ways of managing these growing amounts in circular and sustainable ways.
The environmental and climate effects, like plastic and microplastics appearing on land, river and oceans or an increase in greenhouse gas emissions worldwide make it a global problem that needs addressing locally. We need to work together to find circular and climate-friendly ways of managing waste in the EU and across borders e.g. by increasing reuse and recycling.
Investment in skills (through education) and in jobs in this area is the logical conclusion for ensuring well-being and strengthening the circular economy in Europe.