A recent ban on plastic waste imports in China is forcing European leaders to develop an alternative strategy for plastic use and waste disposal.
Europe is often viewed as an environmental leader and recently ramped up efforts to promote the transition towards a circular economy, in which the use of resources is reduced through efforts to reuse and recycle materials.
However, Politico comments that much of Europe’s “green success” is due to a reliance on “exporting its trash elsewhere,” with millions of tonnes of waste including plastics, cardboard, and textiles sent to China.
In January, the Chinese government began banning the import of plastic waste and other types of what it calls “foreign garbage.” The ban quickly began impacting countries in Europe, with waste piling up at recycling plants across the continent.
Environmental experts have noted that the EU’s past dependence on China for waste disposal limited the number of recycling plants built in Europe, leaving the existing plants unequipped to effectively deal with increased amounts of waste.
Most of Europe’s oil-derived plastic waste ends up in landfills or being incinerated. Each year, less than 30% of Europe’s 25 million tonnes of plastic waste are recycled.
Like many European countries, the Czech Republic relied heavily on China for disposal of plastic waste. Czech broadcaster Radio Prague reports that the ban has had a “nation-wide impact,” with an increasing amount of plastic waste ending up in landfills or burned with mixed waste. Amidst overflowing trash piles, private companies have reportedly raised prices of garbage collection services and are charging Czech municipalities a premium for taking their sorted plastic waste.
The issues highlight the need for an alternative approach to plastic use and waste in Europe. Given the lack of capacity in recycling plants, reducing the use of plastics appears to be a more viable long-term solution.
In December, EU members reached an agreement with the European Parliament to set a legally binding target that would have the bloc recycle 55% of plastic packaging by 2030.
In January, the European Commission formally adopted the European Strategy for Plastics in a Circular Economy, which aims to increase the amount of plastic that is reused and recycled.
At a EU Environment Council meeting on Monday, ministers welcomed the new plastics strategy. They called for immediate implementation of specific measures to increase plastic recycling, cut down on widespread single-use plastics and create a “holistic approach to the value chain of plastic production.”
“We need to protect our environment from plastic pollution. We also need to protect our seas from microplastic particles,” said Neno Dimov, Bulgaria’s environment and water minister. “Today we have made a very important first step towards commitments which will enable us to deliver on our promise to protect the environment and the health of our citizens.”
Efforts to reduce plastic use have recently become a bigger focus in several EU countries. Late last month, a supermarket in the Netherlands opened the world’s first plastic-free aisle. The aisle includes more than 700 products free from plastic and will be replicated by Dutch supermarket chain Ekoplaza in all 74 of its branches by the end of this year.
In a statement, Sian Sutherland, co-founder of environmental group A Plastic Planet, called the opening “a landmark moment for the global fight against plastic pollution.”
If the idea spreads to other nations, it could significantly reduce plastic waste. An investigation by The Guardian earlier this year showed that supermarkets in the UK alone produce one million tonnes of plastic waste each year.
Plastic use is also gaining attention in the UK, where a 25-year environment plan rolled out by Prime Minister Theresa May in January includes a target to eliminate all avoidable plastic waste by 2042.
As part of plastic reduction efforts, UK Environment Secretary Michael Gove said last month the government was considering restricting the use of single-use plastic straws.
The idea could be implemented across the EU. After Gove said he was concerned the EU might block an effort to ban plastic straws in the UK, the European Commission hinted that an EU-wide ban on single-use plastics was already in motion.
In a tweet in late February, Commission Vice President Frans Timmermans said there would be “EU legislation on single-use plastics coming before the summer.”