EU takes a step towards ending its harmful plastic waste exports – but still has some way to go

The three big institutions of the EU have today (17 November) agreed to a timetable to end polluting exports of plastic waste to some countries.

Following several months of negotiations on the EU Waste Shipment Regulation, the European Commission, the European Parliament and the Council of the EU reached an agreement in the early hours of this morning.

Plastic waste in Türkiye (c) Umut Kuruüzüm

Their decision proposes to stop sending the bloc’s plastic waste to countries which are not members of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in two-and-a-half years’ time.

EIA and our partners in the Rethink Plastic Alliance and Break Free from Plastic have long been campaigning for an end to plastic waste exports – aka ‘waste colonialism’ – and we applaud this landmark decision.

However, it is regrettable that the EU institutions did not take the opportunity to stop exporting its plastic waste to all countries.

EIA Senior Ocean Campaigner Lauren Weir, in a statement issued on behalf of the Rethink Plastic Alliance, said: “While the details of what has been agreed have yet to be communicated in full, we are relieved to hear the EU has agreed to ban plastic waste exports to non-OECD countries, while enacting stronger safeguarding measures for exports to OECD countries.

“Although this is an improvement to current obligations, the evidence of the harms and necessity for a full plastic waste ban are clear. This is a signal that the EU is finally beginning to take responsibility for its role in the global plastic pollution emergency.

“It is now for EU member states to ensure that every effort is made so that future EU plastic waste exports are managed in an environmentally sound manner and do not negatively impact the recycling capacities of recipient countries – whether this is possible remains to be seen.

“Huge congratulations to all the advocates and communities around the world who made this outcome a reality and to the EU policymakers who took a stand.”

The EU Waste Shipment Regulation outlines obligations for all waste traded both within the EU and to third countries. For many years, it has been demonstrated that EU plastic waste shipments pose unique and significant threats and so specific measures were needed to address this particular waste stream.

Plastic waste being sorted in Istanbul, Türkiye

Plastic waste exports cause significant harm to the environmental and human health, exacerbated by illicit waste trafficking and recycling capacity displacement.

The EU is one of the largest producers of plastic waste per capita and one of the largest exporters of plastic waste in the world; it is also battling significant levels of waste crime, both within its borders and beyond, as a result of continued exports and a lack of safeguarding policies.

In 2022, the EU exported more than one million tonnes of its plastic waste to countries where plastic waste imports have been mismanaged, dumped or openly burnt, with 50 per cent of it going to non-OECD countries such as Malaysia, Vietnam, Indonesia and Thailand; 33 per cent was shipped to Türkiye alone.

Today’s agreement will have to be formally adopted by the European Parliament and the Council in the coming weeks.

We and our partners are further calling on the EU and its member states to support robust and legally binding rules on plastic waste trade in the Global Plastics Treaty currently being negotiated under the UN.