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The Exportation of Plastic Waste by EU Ends

Martha Davies reports on the EU’s latest legislation to reduce environmental damage caused by waste.

Photo by Aron Yigin

The European Union has announced new rules that ban the exportation of non-recyclable plastic waste, preventing richer nations from sending huge quantities of hazardous or difficult-to-recycle waste to poorer countries in order to prevent exploitation of lower working wages leading to environmental damage.

The new legislation came into effect on January 1st, and forms part of the EU’s Circular Economy Action Plan and the European Green Deal. It encompasses tighter restrictions on the shipment of plastic waste, meaning that importers and exporters must be in agreement with all waste that is transported.

What do the New Rules Mean?

EU environment commissioner Virginijus Sinkevicius has stated that EU nations are now banned from exporting hazardous and difficult-to-recycle plastic to countries that are not a part of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), while shipping such waste to areas within the EU will require “prior notification and consent”.

The transfer of clean, non-hazardous plastic waste to non-OECD countries will also be subject to stricter rules and will only be permitted “under the conditions laid down by the importing country”. The new rules have been decided upon in response to a 2019 conference in which 187 countries agreed to amend a United Nations treaty known as the Basel Convention, created in 1989.

The ban does not apply to Britain now that the Brexit transition period is over; while no longer part of the EU, Britain now belongs to the OECD, meaning plastic exports are permitted but still subject to strict monitoring. 

What Will the Ban Achieve? 

Heavier regulation of plastic shipments will ensure that poorer nations will not receive waste that is dangerous or too complicated to recycle, meaning that less waste is burned or dumped in oceans. Of all plastic ever produced, only 9% has been recycled, while 79% has ended up in landfill or left to contaminate the natural environment. The remaining 12% has been incinerated - a process which increases air pollution and acid rain. 

Such strict rules may have similar negative environmental effects in the short term, with countries simply incinerating more waste or sending it to landfill. However, it should eventually create a more “circular approach” to the disposal of plastic, according to executive director of the Basel, Rotterdam and Stockholm conventions, Rolph Payet. Banning hazardous waste exports signifies that the EU is aware of the damaging practices currently relied upon for plastic disposal, and demonstrates that an effort is being made to initiate positive change.

Out of Sight, Out of Mind

It is imperative that richer countries stop exporting hazardous waste to less industrious nations. The Environment Agency informed The Guardian that seven countries requested to return shipments of “illegal” waste sent from the UK last year; before the new rules came into force, recipient countries were not subject to specific details of waste shipments and therefore could not tell whether the plastic was recyclable.

This means that less affluent nations were left to bear the brunt of first world negligence and the environment continued to be abused as huge amounts of waste were dumped in waterways or illegally burned. Tighter restrictions on waste exports should enable poorer countries to focus on recycling their own plastic waste, while more established nations like the UK develop their own systems for better waste management. 

The EU’s environmental commissioner has declared that the new rules represent “an important milestone in fighting plastic pollution”. Many such milestones will be required to make a sizable change to our current attitude to plastic disposal - and to decrease pollution - but this is a welcome step in the right direction.

Article on a similar topic: Single-Use Plastic Bans Coming into Force Globally

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