The European Commission has proposed new rules for member states that would make it harder for them to export waste to poorer countries, but the proposal has not met expectations.
The European Union has long been criticised for outsourcing its waste problems, especially plastic. Brussels has been urged several times to take action to end this crisis causing significant health, environmental and social harm in developing countries.
The European Commission recently discussed its long-anticipated proposal for the EU Waste Shipment Regulation, in order “to ensure that the EU does not export its waste challenges to third world countries.”
The proposed legislation, which needs approval from European Union member-states and the European parliament, is part of Brussels' plan to reduce pollution and ensure materials like plastic, textiles and metals are reused and recycled, rather than thrown away.
"The goal is to make the EU take a greater responsibility for the waste it produces. That's not the case today and that's what needs to change," said EU environment policy chief Virginijus Sinkevicius.
Krista Shennu, a fellow with the environment and human rights division at Human Rights Watch, criticised the current proposal saying it “fails to meet the EU and its states’ treaty obligation to reduce waste exports.”
"Exporting waste is also not aligned with the EU Circular Economy Action Plan, which calls for waste prevention and minimizing exports outside of the EU.”
What does the proposal offer?
Under the proposal, a non-OECD country would need to notify the EU that it wants to receive its waste shipments, and prove it can treat the waste in an environmentally sound manner. If the country can establish that, EU states can ship their waste there.
Waste exports to OECD countries, like Turkey, would also face EU monitoring, and Brussels could suspend them if, after concerns are raised about such exports causing pollution in a specific country, there is insufficient evidence that the country can sustainably manage them.
The regulation also seeks to ramp up penalties on illegal waste shipments and investigate waste trafficking.
EU companies would need to carry out independent audits for non-EU facilities to which they send waste, the Commission said, to prove they can treat the waste sustainably.
The EU proposal aims to push the 27 member countries to improve their capacity to reuse and process waste at home.
NGOs consider the proposal as an important step in addressing the issue but are also calling on EU states to go further and take full responsibility for their waste and its environmental and social consequences by banning all waste exports from the EU.
In addition, American non-profit campaign group BAN claims that the choice to restrict only certain plastic exports to non-OECD countries, and a “lack of clarity”, weaken the proposed rules.
“Certainly, the EU, which is very well resourced compared to the rest of the world, should be among the first group of nations to achieve full waste self-sufficiency and stop playing the global waste trade shell game. They must adopt a no-exceptions ban on waste trade, period,”said Jim Puckett, Executive Director of the Basel Action Network.
NGOs are concerned that illegal plastic waste trade practices will continue as they think the proposed measures fail to address some weaknesses.
“This proposal gets some things very right and some things very wrong,” said Tim Grabiel, Senior Lawyer at the Environmental Investigation Agency.
“While we commend the Commission for continuing to take action to limit plastic waste exports to non-OECD countries and enhance independent monitoring, the lack of consent procedures on plastic waste movements within the EU will create new dumping grounds and exacerbate illegal trade.”
Pierre Condamine, waste trade policy officer at Zero Waste Europe, says the proposal can be the most ambitious legislative piece on plastic waste trade in the world, if the regulation is strengthened. The responsibility falls upon the European Parliament and EU countries in this regard, according to him.
The metals recycling industry has criticised the EU proposal, saying it treats plastic waste washing up on beaches and high-quality metal that goes into smelters the same way.
"They are comparing apples with oranges," said European Metal Recycling's Murat Bayram, adding that added red tape to export scrap metal would hurt the industry by preventing excess material from reaching end markets where they are needed.
What is the current situation?
The EU exported around 33 million tonnes of waste last year, around half of which went to poorer non-OECD countries with weaker waste management rules than the EU - effectively shipping Europe’s pollution problem abroad.
Plastic waste is ostensibly exported for recycling, however, that’s usually not what happens in the end. Only 9 percent has been recycled out of the 8.3 billion tonnes of plastic produced worldwide, 12 percent was incinerated and 79 percent was accumulated in landfills or into the natural environment.
If current production and waste management trends continue, roughly 13,000 tons of plastic waste will be in landfills or in the natural environment by 2050.