Where does European waste end up?

The image that the European Union promotes of itself is that of a strong organization that pays special attention to the respect of human rights and the safeguarding of the environment by promoting innovative legislation that pushes its member countries to contribute to a fairer and greener future. In practice, however, being one of the most developed regions in the world, with a high lifestyle, means producing large amounts of waste. Europe struggles to manage the disposal of such a large amount of waste, which is then sent abroad, sometimes to poor countries that are subject to wide-ranging regulations and violate the right to health of their inhabitants.

Who are responsible?

According to the latest data from Eurostat, citizens and industries produced more than 2 billion tons of waste in 2018. The main culprits are construction, mining, manufacturing, and wastewater. The countries that host most of these industries are therefore the big waste producers at the European level: in Estonia, Bulgaria, Finland, Luxembourg, and Sweden, large part of the waste is mineral, i.e. it comes from the construction and demolition of buildings and mining activities. Another major problem is the production of toxic waste and harmful to health, difficult to dispose of. In terms of municipal waste, each citizen is responsible for the production of about 502 kilos per year of waste (2019 data) and the trend is going up. Denmark and Luxembourg rank well above the average, while Romania and Poland lower it.

Thanks to new laws, more waste generation is accompanied by more recycling. However, some of Europe's waste is shipped to third countries. Also, according to Eurostat, waste exports are increasing and in 2020, about 33 million tons were arranged from countries outside the Union. Although it is only a fraction of the total waste generation, it still impacts containers that are mainly Turkey (well ahead of all others), India, the UK, Switzerland, Norway, Indonesia, and Pakistan. More than half of the waste is metals, especially iron and steel. Paper and plastic occupy the second and third places respectively; their export is subject to criticism as they are materials that can be easily recycled domestically

Is European Union doing enough?

The Commission has just approved a new legislative initiative concerning the transport of waste outside the EU with particular attention to toxic and hazardous waste, taking as its basis a previous regulation and the Basel Convention that promotes conscious and environmentally friendly disposal practices. If the initiative is approved by Parliament and Council, waste transportation will be subject to controls and transparency requirements, especially if outside the OECD. The export of plastics will be prohibited unless they are to be recycled, thus preventing third countries from treating them in an unsustainable manner.

Despite all the legislative shrewdness, it is still unclear what happens to waste once it arrives in another country. If we take Turkey as an example, we see that most of the imported plastic is not actually recycled as the rules dictate but buried in landfills or burned. There is a lack of capacity to recycle the large amounts of waste coming from Europe. The country had announced a ban on importing certain plastic by-products, but its implementation was short-lived and now the ban has been lifted, while the EU itself recycles only 32.5% of its plastic. This means lack of circularity also due to the fact that it is cheaper to produce new plastic than to recycle it.

Why is waste imported?

The waste market offers the possibility to earn money: from transportation and buying and selling of materials, to creating jobs in the recycling industry and developing new and better plants. In addition, there is often a demand for waste materials: always referring to Turkey, we see that it is a regular importer of scrap metal. They are used in the automotive industry and to produce household appliances. Such an important market also leaves room for illegal exports of toxic materials, one of the main problems that Europe wants to face with the new law on waste transport.

So, on the one hand, the waste market is an important component of the European economy; on the other hand, however, Europe is co-responsible for environmentally unfriendly practices and does not apply itself enough in recycling its own waste: the circular economy of the Union is still underdeveloped and reducing the export of waste is an opportunity to expand it. Proper management of waste recycling, in Europe and elsewhere, is the basis for ethical and sustainable economic growth.

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  • L'Autore

    Nadia Dalla Gasperina

    Nadia Dalla Gasperina è studentessa di scienze politiche all’Università di Bologna, dove si occupa di Balcani. Il suo interesse per la diplomazia, le relazioni internazionali, e l’azione civile l’hanno portata a collaborare con diverse associazioni e organizzazioni in Italia e all’estero. Scrive ora nella sezione Ambiente e Sviluppo di MI Post.


Sections Environment & Development


economia circolare rifiuti smaltimento rifiuti riciclo Unione Europea sostenibilità esportazione rifiuti

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