EU restrictions to plastic waste exports come into force

The European Commission has announced a ban on non-recyclable plastic waste exports to non-OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) countries, which came into force from 1 January 2021.

With the Brexit transition period having come to an end on 31 December 2020, the EU ban does not apply to the UK, as it is an OECD country, where it is permissible to trade plastic waste subject to tighter controls. This follows a similar set of rules on waste shipments between the EU, Great Britain and Northern Ireland, which was announced in December to come into effect at the start of this year.

The new rules, which apply to exports, imports and shipments of plastic waste around the EU, aim to curb the problem of illegal waste dumping in developing countries, as much of this waste ends up in landfill, the ocean or is incinerated due to a lack of recycling infrastructure in these countries.

Under the new rules, only recyclable, ‘clean’ plastic waste can be exported to non-OECD countries, with stricter measures being placed on plastic waste exports from the EU to OECD countries and within the EU.

Commissioner for Environment, Oceans and Fisheries, Virginijus Sinkevičius, commented: “These new rules send a clear message that in the EU we are taking responsibility for the waste we generate.

“This is an important milestone in fighting plastic pollution, transitioning to a circular economy, and achieving the aims of the European Green Deal.”

As the UK is no longer part of the EU, it is not subject to this change in policy. However, as the export of plastic waste from the UK to developing countries has been identified as a significant problem, an analogous obligation has been included in the UK Government’s Environment Bill.

Currently, Clause 59 of the Bill on the ‘transfrontier shipment of waste’ gives the Secretary of State the power to ‘make provision for, about or connected with the regulation of the importation or exportation of waste or the transit of waste for export’ – allowing the Secretary of State to determine where the waste will end up.

In addition, a ban on the export of plastic waste to non-OECD countries was announced last year in the Queen’s Speech.

Think tank Policy Connect, which responded to these developments to the Bill in April 2020, considers the restrictions on plastic waste exports to non-OECD countries as a ‘positive development’.

However, it brought into question the capacity of certain OECD countries, such as Turkey, to deal with the UK’s plastic waste, suggesting instead a set of quality assurance criteria to determine which countries have the capacity to appropriately treat waste.