Closeup portrait woman hand throwing empty plastic water bottle in recycling bin.

EU’s plastic recycling targets slipping away, auditors warn

Image credit: Siam Pukkato/Dreamstime

The European Court of Auditors (ECA) has said the European Union (EU) is at risk of missing its plastic packaging recycling targets, warning that an incoming ban on exports of trash to poorer nations will increase the likelihood of a plastic waste pile-up.

In 2018, Europe produced 29 million tonnes of post-consumer plastic waste, more than 60 per cent of which was packaging. More plastic waste is incinerated than recycled in Europe, which the auditors attributed to a lack of facilities. This could mean that the EU bloc will struggle to reach its target recycling rate for plastic packaging of 50 per cent by 2025 and 55 per cent by 2030.

The ECA said international rules will allow only pre-sorted, uncontaminated recyclable plastics to be shipped to countries that are not a member of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) from 2021, meaning the bloc will probably be sending less waste abroad. Nearly one-third of all plastic packaging that Europe currently recycles is shipped abroad for processing.

This makes expanding capacity even more urgent, the ECA stressed. “There is a huge need for recycling capacities,” said ECA member Samo Jereb.

The EU and national governments also need to better enforce laws on illegal waste disposal, Jereb said, adding: “If there is a possibility to avoid these rules with illegal actions, and there is no dissuading with appropriate sanctions, of course, crime will flourish.”

A European Commission spokeswoman added: “Significant efforts are needed in order to deal with plastic waste and pollution and to ensure the overall sustainability of plastics.”

The Commission will propose new rules next year to help ensure all packaging is reusable or recyclable by 2030. It has also proposed a new tax on member states’ plastic waste to shore up funds for the next EU budget. However, some EU countries have already enacted domestic measures, such as plastic bottle deposit return schemes in Germany and Slovakia.

The EU’s environment commissioner has also warned that the Covid-19 pandemic could increase litter in the form of disposable masks and gloves. The health crisis has also intensified a price war between recycled plastics producers and makers of virgin plastics, which had already been rendered much cheaper to produce by a plunge in oil prices.

The auditor added that recent changes to EU rules should give a clearer picture of actual recycling rates. The more rigorous reporting requirements could see the EU’s official plastic recycling rate drop from 42 per cent at present to around 30 per cent, it warned, leaving an even bigger gap with the new targets. 

In July, figures showed that the number of single-use plastic bags distributed by big supermarkets across England had fallen by more than 95 per cent since a 5p charge was introduced in 2015. 

Meanwhile back in April, researchers from Plymouth Marine Laboratory used satellites to detect patches of floating macroplastics in marine environments, which could help to aid ocean clean-ups. The same month also saw the Welsh Government pledging to ban single-use plastics from 2021 as part of plans to move the country towards a circular economy. 

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