The European Commission adopted the ‘Circular Economy’ in 2018 to better address the single-use plastic problem. This was in an effort to move closer towards Sustainable Development Goals, especially SDG 14 which addresses the need to sustain our marine environment. A new study sheds light on how more efforts might be required when it comes to recycling this plastic waste generated in the EU.
The research, conducted by a team at the National University of Ireland, found that about 46% of plastic from the EU gets exported, primarily to Asian countries. Of this exported plastic, about 31% of plastic does not get recycled. Estimating the best-, average-, and worst-case scenarios, the study concludes that about 1%-7% of all exported European plastic waste ended up polluting the Asian waters. This translates to about 32,115 – 180,558 tonnes of plastic in the ocean in 2017 alone.
Out of the European nations, the UK, Slovenia, and Italy emerged as the largest exporters of plastic waste and thus have a higher share of their plastic waste ending up in the oceans. A significant detail that this study highlights is that data available on recycling may not be reflecting the reality.
“To successfully move towards a more circular economy, 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 the trade in plastic waste,” said Professor Piet Lens, Established Professor of New Energy Technologies at the National University of Ireland, Galway. Professor Lens also led the ‘Innovative Energy Technologies for Bioenergy, Biofuels and a Sustainable Irish Bioeconomy: IETSBIO3’ study, of which this research was a part.
This points to a need for revaluating what we do with our plastic as well as the health of our oceans. The authors stress that despite the numbers, recycling remains the best way to deal with plastic waste. The results of this study are available online in the Environment International journal.