MEPs agree to back plastic waste export bans

Following a plenary debate on Monday (16 January), members of the European Parliament (MEPs) on Tuesday voted to back bans on plastic waste exports. The position has been established ahead of talks with EU governments on a new law revising EU procedures and control measures for waste shipments.

EP Plenary session - EU Shipments of waste
WEISS, Pernille at EP Plenary session on Shipments of waste
The incoming legislation aims to ‘protect the environment and human health’ while achieving the EU’s goals for a circular and zero-pollution economy. MEP’s position is to ban all shipments of waste for disposal within the EU, except if authorised in limited and well-adjusted cases.

MEPs are therefore pushing bans on plastic waste exports as a way to meet these aims. Rapporteur Pernille Weiss said that the new rules will ‘make it easier for us to combat waste crime inside and outside the EU’. 

The adopted text states that ‘a well-functioning Union market for waste shipments should prioritise proximity, self-sufficiency and the use of the best available techniques in waste management as guiding principles’.

It would also ban the export of hazardous waste to countries which are not members of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) unless consent is given and the ability to process the waste sustainably is proven.

The backing for the ban received 594 votes in favour, with 5 against and 43 abstentions.

MEPs also hope to ban the export of plastic waste to non-OECD countries and begin to phase out the export to OECD countries within four years. It was agreed that a risk-based targeting mechanism should be established to help EU countries carry out inspections to prevent and detect illegal shipments of waste.

The OECD was established in 1961 to stimulate economic progress and world trade. It has 38 members and is classified as an official United Nations observer – which gives it the limited right to partake in the General Assembly. The majority of the members of the OECD are high-income countries.

In 2020, the EU exported 32.7 million tonnes of waste to non-EU countries, representing about 16 per cent of global waste trade. In addition to this, approximately 67 million tonnes of waste are shipped between EU countries every year. In November 2021 the European Commission tabled the motion to reform EU rules on waste shipments.

Weiss, who is from the European People’s Party, Denmark, continued: “Our ambitious position in the coming negotiations with member states has just been endorsed by a broad majority in plenary.

“We must turn waste into resources in the common market, and thereby take better care of our environment and competitiveness.

“And, with the export ban on plastic waste that we suggest, we are pushing for a much more innovative and circular economy wherever plastic is involved. That is a true win for the next generations.”

Waste management trade association FEAD commented: “[We are] very concerned about the outcome of the vote on shipments of plastic waste.

“FEAD is in favour of positive rules that enable safe and traceable shipments of plastic waste within the EU, taking into account the specificities of the EU single market and the European waste management industry, and in outside the EU to the countries where the industries that use them are located.

“The WSR regime must be in line with international law, where trade restrictions are only permitted for environmental protection reasons and provided that there is no alternative, less trade-restrictive measures available to achieve the same objectives.”

In 2021, European Recycling Industries’ Confederation (EuRIC) warned against shipping bans, with its President Cinzia Vezzosi, saying: “They will result in massive green job cuts and put a lasting brake on the growth of one of the most dynamic industries in Europe, for no environmental gains.

“Worse still, with unhampered imports of extracted raw materials in Europe, the competitiveness of RMR will drop and thus the incentive to properly collect, recycle, and invest will be lost, putting at risk the ability to achieve present recycling targets set by legislation.”

With the bans now looking likely, Secretary General of EuRIC, Emmanuel Katrakis, said: “Recycled materials already struggle to compete with extracted raw materials. If current waste shipment proposals are adopted, this will be yet another major setback for Europe’s recycling industries and our climate ambitions.”

Sian Sutherland, Co-Founder of A Plastic Planet, commented: “MEPs are showing real ambition here, by challenging member states to phase out plastic exports completely.

“However, there is a danger that national governments and EU commissioners will instead listen to siren voices in the recycling industry who say they must be able to ship tonnes of waste around and between continents, just to facilitate more recycling.

“On the contrary, we need to drive people away from plastic entirely.  Insisting that member states must each be responsible for their own plastic waste will drive innovation in the natural materials sector and encourage systemic change with reusables and prefill solutions that ultimately use far fewer resources with lower GHG impacts.”