Close to a third of plastic exported from the European Union to Asia for recycling is not recycled at all – most of it is going to landfill or ending up in the ocean, according to researchers at NUI Galway and the University of Limerick.
For the first time volumes of plastic exported for recycling from the EU, the United Kingdom, Switzerland and Norway that contributed to ocean littering have been tracked and quantified.
While European countries have developed world-leading waste management infrastructure, 46 per cent of their separated plastic waste is exported outside the country of origin.
A large share of this is transported thousands of kilometres to countries with poor waste management practices, mostly located in Southeast Asia, the study published in Environment International concludes. China, which was the single biggest importer of this waste stream, closed its doors to most categories of plastics in 2017.
“Once in these countries, a large share of the waste is rejected from recycling streams into overstretched local waste management systems that have been found to contribute significantly to ocean littering,” it adds.
Using international trade data and evaluating waste management efficiency in destination countries, the study modelled the fate of polyethylene (the most common type of plastic used) exported for recycling from Europe, some of it being converted into recycled resins, or ending up as landfill, incineration or ocean debris.
Where plastic is inadequately disposed of or “vanishes”, there is an established model determining how much ends up in the ocean. The researchers estimated best-case, average, and worst-case scenarios of ocean debris pathways from exported plastics in 2017. Up to 180,558 tonnes ended up in the ocean; the worst-case scenario – ie 7 per cent of all exported polyethylene.
Lead author George Bishop of NUIG Ryan Institute said: "The results indicate an important and previously undocumented pathway of plastic debris entering the oceans, which will have considerable environmental and social impacts on marine ecosystems and coastal communities."
Co-author Dr David Styles of UL added: "This study suggests that 'true' recycling rates may deviate significantly from rates reported by municipalities and countries where the waste originates . . . our study found up to 31 per cent of exported plastic wasn't actually recycled at all."
The results indicate the UK, Slovenia, and Italy are exporting a higher share of plastic outside of Europe and see a higher share of their recyclable plastic waste ending up as ocean debris. Ireland is in mid-table with an estimated average of 441,017 kg of plastic ending up in the ocean (3.15 per cent of its plastic exported out of EU).
Ireland has a lot of “inter-trade” within Europe to ensure plastic is recycled, Mr Bishop acknowledged.
The study was part of a Science Foundation Ireland funded project on using technologies to build a sustainable Irish bioeconomy led by Prof Piet Lens of NUIG.
“European municipalities and waste management companies need to be held accountable for the final fate of ‘recycled’ waste. Our study highlights the lack of available data on plastic waste and the need to consider extended audit trails, or “on-shoring” of recycling activities as part of emerging regulations around trade in plastic waste,” Prof Lens said.
Plastic pledge initiative
The authors stress recycling “remains the best waste management treatment, environmentally speaking”.
Meanwhile 115 of Ireland's "industry leaders" will this year divert a total of 16,100 tonnes of plastic packaging waste from the Irish market, according to a Repak report on companies committed to its "plastic pledge initiative".
The companies are removing avoidable plastics, with an emphasis on single-use plastics, from their business premises and from sale. Businesses who signed the pledge reduced their plastic usage by 14.8 per cent on average and used over 21,000 tonnes of recycled plastics in the production of their packaging and raw materials in 2019, it confirms.