Asia bearing the brunt of European waste as recycling problems hit crisis point

By RJ Whitehead

- Last updated on GMT

The paper revealed that much of the waste ends up being dumped in the ocean. ©GettyImages
The paper revealed that much of the waste ends up being dumped in the ocean. ©GettyImages

Related tags Recycling Plastic Eu Packaging Pollution

Recent efforts by European countries to send plastic East for recycling have become a major cause of the marine litter problem that has been plaguing Asia-Pacific waters, according to an explosive report from the Global Warming Policy Foundation (GWPF).

The paper, written by public health expert Mikko Paunio, revealed that much of the millions of tonnes of waste — much of it from the food and food-service industry — shipped from the European Union to take advantage of poorly-enforced Asian environmental regulations ends up being dumped in the ocean, causing harm to local marine life.

Indeed, as much as a fifth of the 85 million tonnes of annual shipments from the bloc ends up in the sea, the report claimed.

The effects look as though they will be appalling​,” Dr Paunio wrote.

We can expect a great deal more plastic to end up in the environment, and in the oceans in particular. If the EU was serious about its war against marine pollution, it should consider banning the export of plastic recyclate rather than banning plastic straws or taxing incineration​.”

China ban

The large quantity of waste being exported to Asia from Europe is mainly caused by high landfill taxes set by the EU, which force European countries to send their waste to places where environmental standards are poorly enforced.

China, which has developed a sophisticated recycling industry, was the favourite recipient of European waste until the beginning of this year, when it imposed a ban on the import of dozens categories of waste, including plastics, mixed papers and solid waste from food companies, as well as textiles and industrial waste.

Since the Eighties, it has been the world's largest importer of recyclables but last July it announced it would ban 24 categories of materials so it could focus on recycling its own waste.

Since China banned waste imports on January 1, shipments have been diverted to other Asian countries with even weaker environmental controls.

Other Asian countries lagging

Britain, in particular, has had to rethink its approach to shipping waste because it does not have enough recycling infrastructure to process it domestically, and because its system of recycling credits, known as “packaging recovery notes​”, effectively pays exporters to take the rubbish.

Its plastic exports to China have dropped by 97% in the last year, with Malaysia, which has seen imports from Britain triple at the same time, Thailand and Taiwan taking up the slack. These countries do not have the capacity to replace China as a destination, and it appears that much of it is dumped or burnt, the report says.

Ocean plastics activists like Greenpeace have warned that plastic waste is more likely to end up as marine litter in South East Asian countries with poor waste management infrastructure than if it were handled in Britain.

Several ports in Vietnam, which has seen a 50% rise in UK plastic waste imports this year, suspended imports of plastic waste at the start of July because of a backlog of containers filled with the material.

Data for the first few months of 2018 suggests that there has been a dramatic shift in the destination of waste exports — from China to other countries in East Asia​,” the report said.

These countries have until now been staging posts, sorting waste ahead of onwards shipment to China. Since the waste management infrastructure in South East Asia is much more primitive than in China, it remains unclear to what extent the rejected ‘recyclates’ end up in the oceans or are burned in the open​.”

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