Ship ahoy: NGOs welcome new law to curtail waste exports

A new EU regulation aims to halt waste exports and improve law enforcement and transparency, but contradictions on hazardous substances remain. Stéphane Arditi and Roberta Arbinolo report.

EU negotiators have reached a political agreement to update the waste shipment regulation. 

For decades, waste trade has allowed EU governments to ship off the true costs of waste management, shifting a significant health, environmental and social burden to receiving countries. In 2020, EU exports of waste to non-EU countries reached 32.7 million tonnes, an increase of 75% since 2004. The largest share of this waste was sent to Turkey (13.7 million tonnes), followed by India (2.9 million tonnes), the UK (1.8 million tonnes), Switzerland (1.6 million tonnes), Norway (1.5 million tonnes), Indonesia and Pakistan (1.4 million tonnes each). 

At the same time, hazardous waste exports mostly remain within the EU: in 2018, 7 million tonnes of the hazardous waste exports happened between member states, corresponding to approximately 91% of the total exports. 

The European Environmental Bureau, the Rethink Plastic alliance and the Break Free From Plastic movement had repeatedly urged the EU to take responsibility for its own waste.

The new text, which now needs to be formally adopted by the European Parliament and the Council, aims to steady the ship, by reducing exports of problematic waste beyond the EU, updating shipment procedures to reflect the objectives of a circular economy, and enhancing enforcement.

Stricter restrictions

The revised law will tighten the ban on waste exports. Waste shipments for disposal will be prohibited even within the EU, with very stringent exceptions. For instance, imports and exports of mixed municipal solid waste for disposal will not be authorized. On the other hand, shipments for recycling or other forms of waste recovery will still be possible. 

All waste export to non-OECD countries will be prohibited by default, complementing an existing ban on hazardous waste. This ban can only be lifted through a formal request and an assessment process. For plastics waste, the ban is even stronger as the deviation from it would be further restricted.  

Waste exports to OECD countries will still be authorised with a notification, prior informed consent by the countries of origin, transit and destination, for hazardous and problematic waste. This regime will also apply to all plastic waste, enabling greater control on these shipments: an important achievement for the NGO community, which has relentlessly raised awareness about the problematic nature of plastic waste. In Autumn 2023, more than 180,000 people signed a petition calling on the EU to ban plastic trash exports.

In addition, all future waste shipments will be subject to stringent conditions, including a mandatory audit of the receiving facility, along with its inclusion in a publicly accessible registry. This registry will enlist facilities equipped with environmentally sound waste management systems (ESM), capable of responsibly treating various types of waste, including residues from recovery processes. This is a major improvement in addressing the oversight of recovery treatment residues, which saw big amounts of hard-to-recycle mixed waste or plastic waste end up as residues. 

More transparency

The new text foresees the implementation of a EU-wide digital system to record and monitor the shipment of waste, in integration with existing national systems, as well as a legal requirement to disclose public information on shipments monthly, including the type of exported waste, its origin and receiving facilities. This will empower civil society organisations to exert their watch dog role more effectively. 

Moreover, the revised law will make enforcement easier. While the current law already obliged EU member states to communicate their inspection plans and report on them, the new text introduces an enforcement group of national experts and grants the European Commission more leverage. While enforcement activities will remain the ultimate competency of national authorities, these forms of collaboration may help the most fragile or exposed countries – such as those with large port facilities or fewer expert staff – to ensure compliance. 

Toxic contradictions: PVC and PFAs

While welcoming the provisions to tighten restrictions and increase transparency, environmental NGOs deem the measures on certain problematic materials and substances inadequate to contain the risk they pose to human health and the environment. 

Notably, the shipment of PVC and PTFE (Teflon) waste will still be authorized without any notification within the EU, as those polymers will remain on a specific EU green list, which deviates significantly from the international green list established under the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal. 

Although one of the objectives of the revision was to ease the shipment of non-problematic waste within the EU, campaigners are deeply concerned to see PVC on a green list at a time when the EU Chemicals Agency (ECHA) has recognised it as problematic and is considering restricting its use. The same applies to PTFE, a highly toxic “forever chemical” (PFAs) which does not break down and remains in the environment for centuries, contaminating drinking water and causing severe diseases. A recent official document by the ECHA highlights the inadequacy of current regulatory measures in effectively addressing the alarming issue of PFAs. 

However, environmental NGOs hope that this contradiction, which is suspected as the result of intensive lobbying by the PVC and chemical industry, will not remain long-term, as the European Commission will have a chance to amend this EU green list after 60 months.