In a briefing on The Plastic Waste Trade in the Circular Economy, published on Monday, the EEA said Europe was at “a crossroads the EEA regarding its management of plastic” and that recycling in the EU could also provide a net benefit for the European economy, through jobs and added value, and for the environment.
However, it notes that until extra recycling capacity comes online in the EU, there was a “risk of increased incineration and landfilling of plastic waste in Europe”.
Annual global plastic production has increased from 2 million to 380 million tonnes since 1950 and is projected to almost quadruple by 2050, the EEA said.
But European countries lack the capacity to manage growing amounts of plastic waste in sustainable ways and in early 2019 exported around 150 000 tonnes of plastic waste each month, although restrictions imposed by China and other countries in Asia had seen these exports halve since 2015-16.
There are just a handful of plastics recycling factories in the UK, but a 2014 Circular Economy Task Force report found that it could support 45 plastics recycling factories, with the right incentives and collection methods in place. This could increase the domestic recycling plastics from 9% a year to 70%, it said.
While planned government measures such as taxing plastic products that do not contain a minimum of 30% recycled content and consistent collections across England have been welcomed by the industry and should create demand, it is generally agreed the government needs to step in with subsidies to stimulate a domestic plastics recycling market.
The EEA said it expected that the Single Use Plastics Directive, which will ban and restrict the use of various types of single-use plastics from 2021 onwards, will mark the beginning of a transition towards a more circular economy for plastics.
Added this year to the inclusion of contaminated, mixed or hard-to-recycle plastic waste in the UN Basel Convention on movements and disposal of hazardous wastes, these factors are “likely to reduce the plastic waste trade with countries outside the EU as an option for plastic waste management,” it said.
This could increase landfilling in the short term, but it “will also be a clear signal for EU countries to move towards a more circular plastic economy”.