Slay the plastic waste trade dragon, campaigners urge the EU

A giant dragon spewing plastic waste laid siege to EU institutions as campaigners called for an end to Europe’s waste export crisis. Roberta Arbinolo reports.

The three metres tall monster was set up by the Rethink Plastic Alliance and partner organisations to bring attention to the irresponsible plastic waste exports from the EU to third countries: over 1.7 million tonnes in 2019 only, mostly shipped to Turkey, Malaysia and China.

Over the last 30 years, more than a quarter of a billion tonnes of plastic waste has been legally traded around the world, with the European Union consistently being one of the world’s largest plastic waste exporters. Out of the top 10 plastic waste exporting countries in 2020, six were EU member states: Germany, the Netherlands, France, Belgium, Italy and Slovenia.

A costly trade

Europe’s plastic waste exports towards the Global South come at a high cost for receiving countries. They allow EU governments to externalise the true costs of proper waste management to third countries whose treatment infrastructures are often already overwhelmed, while local communities foot the bill in terms of health impacts and environmental degradation.

Some plastics are intrinsically toxic, while others have toxic additives that can leach into the environment, also during recycling operations, contaminating the air, water and soil.

Back in 2019, 180 governments from around the world agreed to classify non-recyclable and hard-to-recycle mixed plastics as hazardous under the Basel Convention, an international treaty that restricts the flow of hazardous waste, especially between richer and poorer countries.

EU plastic waste exports also take illegal paths, as the lack of transparency around waste shipments both inside and outside the EU leaves room for illegal trafficking.

Stop those ships upstream

With the plastic waste dragon siege, campaigners are calling on the European Commission to intervene and propose a ban on plastic waste exports within the revision of the Waste Shipment Regulation. The Commission is expected to present in October 2021 a new proposal that has the potential to improve the existing regulation, by including measures to restrict EU waste shipments to third countries, prevent environmental and health impacts of EU waste exports, and take on tackle illegal waste shipments.

The dragon stunt set the scene for the handover to the European Commissioner for Environment, Oceans and Fisheries Virginijus Sinkevičius the Plastic Waste Trade Manifesto, a call to action signed by 36 members of the European Parliament and over 60 NGOs. The manifesto includes recommendations for the Commission to revise the Waste Shipment Regulation, including a ban on plastic waste exports outside the EU, full implementation of the Basel Convention in all member states, and the uptake of circular measures on prevention, reduction, reuse and recycling to avoid the generation of plastic waste upstream.

Piotr Barczak, senior policy officer for waste at the European Environmental Bureau (EEB), told META:

“We cannot achieve a truly safe and efficient circular economy if we keep offloading the burden of our plastic waste elsewhere. Europe’s plastic waste trade has encouraged an irresponsible use of plastics for decades, but we cannot just ship our trash away, because there is no ‘away’. The European Commission and our governments must put an end to this waste trade crisis and cut plastic waste at source.”

Not the first assault

This is not the first appearance of the plastic waste dragon in Brussels. Back in December 2018, the plastic spewing monster laid siege to the Commission and the Council of the European Union to put pressure on the decision-makers discussing EU laws to curb single-use plastics. Almost three years later, the landmark Single-Use Plastics Directive should be enforced all across the EU, but a recent report by the Rethink Plastic alliance shows too many governments are still lagging behind.