Recycling in the EU
Much of what we consider as trash and throw away in the bin can actually be recycled. Recycling is better for the environment by sending less waste to landfills and by providing materials for new products. Unfortunately, recycling rates are not as high as could be. In Europe recycling rates differ much between countries. For example, Slovakia (9%), Latvia (9%) and Malta (13%) score very poorly, but Austria (63%), Germany (62%) and Belgium (58%) have the highest recycling rates. The overall rate for recycling in the EU was 45% in 2015.
Much of the waste produced in Europe is being sent to China. In 2016 of the 56.4 million tons of paper, some 8 million ended up in China, purchased by recycling centers that turn it into cardboard and send it back to Europe as packaging for Chinese exports. That same year, the EU collected 8.4 million tons of plastic waste, and sent 1.6 million tons to China. But at the end of 2017, China put a limit on the amount of trash sent to them. Beijing mentioned environmental and health concerns when it imposed strict limitations on imports of 24 types of foreign garbage, including plastic scraps and mixed, unsorted paper. China will be using its recycling plants on dealing with its own ever increasing trash problem.
The problems that the ban cause the EU are forcing innovation and more efficient recycling. The European Comission´s Plastics Strategy, announced in January of this year, aims to make all plastic packaging recyclable or reusable by 2030, something that it says could create 200,000 jobs. To be able to reach this goal, Europe’s capacity to sort and recycle waste would have to be multiplied fourfold, at a cost of EUR 16.6 billion. Part of the plan is to develop a new, sustainable “plastic economy,” which could potentially involve levying taxes on virgin plastics and modernizing plastics production in order to change behavior, the European Commission said in a statement. Low oil prices cause new plastics to be much cheaper to produce than recycled ones. “It would be a gamechanger,” Antonino Furfari, director of Plastics Recyclers Europe, said of a plastic tax. Apart from educating consumers, the Commission will also facilitate easy access to tap water throughout Europe in order to reduce the demand for bottled water.
Currently, around 40% of plastic waste produced in Europe (25 million tons annually) is being recycled. “If we don’t do anything about this, 50 years down the road we will have more plastic than fish in the oceans” Frans Timmermans, vice-president of the European Commission responsible for sustainable development, said in a statement. The EC is focusing on reducing or eliminating single-use plastics, like straws, plastic bottles, coffee cups, lids and stirrers, cutlery and takeaway containers. “Single-use plastics … take five seconds to produce, you use it for five minutes and it takes 500 years to break down again,” Timmermans said.
“The European Commission is showing willingness to tackle the plastic pollution crisis”, said Delphine Lévi Alvarès, coordinator of Rethink Plastic, “but it is now essential to bring forward ambitious legislation to drastically reduce the consumption of both single-use plastic items and packaging within this Commission’s term”. Rethink Plastic also welcomes the process that the Commission to restrict the use of intentionally added microplastics in products such as cosmetics and detergents (microbes) under the REACH legislation, and hopes that this will lead to a ban of all microplastic ingredients. The Commission also announced a ban on polluting oxoplastics – supposedly biodegradable plastics, which in reality break down into small fragments and contribute to harmful microplastic pollution in the oceans and other ecosystems. “This is an important environmental win. There is no place for oxo-plastics in a true circular economy, and a ban is urgently needed”, said Lévi Alvarès.
There is still a long way to go, though. Some countries, including many in the EU, as well as the U.S. and Australia, are looking for other countries in Asia to accept their garbage overflow. Provisional data from the Bureau of International Recycling show that between the last quarter of 2016 and that of 2017, Malaysia’s imports of plastic waste more than doubled to 180,000 tons. Vietnam, Thailand, Indonesia and India show similar trends. But also some of these countries are trying to reduce the inflow of waste. Vietnam stopped issuing waste import permits and the Malaysian government passed a law obliging waste importers to have environmental permits, but so far this is little enforced: “We really don’t know what comes in,” said Mageswari Sangaralingam of the Consumers’ Association of Penang. “Enforcement is the issue.”
Some countries simply send more waste to landfills. The revised Landfill Directive, agreed upon by EU institutions, capped landfilling at 10% of all municipal waste by 2035 but allowed European countries with high landfill rates an extra five years to comply. Bulgaria, Estonia, Greece, Cyprus, Malta, Romania and Slovakia all landfilled more than half of their waste in 2014 according to Eurostat. So, Europe’s waste can still be sent to Eastern Europe, a cheaper option than recycling. “Waste always find the cheapest way,” said Ella Stengler, director of waste-to-energy plants federation CEWEP.