Dirty trade’ challenges EU vision of recycling society
(3 November 2011) According to research of the European Environmental Agency transportation and shipment of waste out of Europe is increasing despite efforts to reduce, re-use and recycle waste in the EU. Europe’s rising waste export is not confined to illegal hazardous materials, which made headlines when it emerged that poor workers in India have been dismantling rubbish from batteries to used warships containing Asbestos. Exports also relate to the legal shipments of non-hazardous wastes such as metals, paper and plastic. These do not need to be notified as they have an economic value and represent a useful source of secondary raw material for emerging economies.
In the EU-15, exports of waste paper alone increased from 1.2 to 7.8 million tonnes during that period – with exports to China rising from almost zero to 4.5 million tonnes. For waste plastics, the rise was from 0.2 to 1.6 million tonnes, of which half was sent to China and Hong Kong. According to the EEA, the most significant type of waste plastic exported – over 1 million tonnes– is of parings and scrap plastic from polymers of ethylene. The four main categories of waste metals being exported are iron and steel, copper, aluminium and nickel. But much more is being exported in the form of electronic waste such as mobile phones and laptops. For waste iron and steel, exports went from 6.7 to 8.1 million tonnes and the export of waste copper, aluminium and nickel from the EU-25 was almost 1.6 million tonnes in 2005.
Social Dumping. The EU requires more recycling for all sorts of waste streams such as paper and plastic, and seeks to prohibit dumping in landfills. Incineration is also heavily taxed in most of Europe. The cheapest option available may be to simply ship the waste away to countries where health and environmental standards for recycling as well as labour costs are significantly lower. But it is not only about opting for cheaper treatment outside the EU. Economic growth and the related increasing costs of virgin raw materials and fossil fuels have also created a higher price for secondary raw materials, increasing the international market for recovered metals, paper, glass, and special kinds of plastics (PET) of high quality.
Good waste management is key to achieve a more sustainable society. More incentives are needed to effectively achieve a recycling society. This should not be done as usual by putting pressure on working conditions in the waste sector, that are already among the lowest in Europe, but for example by putting fines on transport of waste, increasing producer chain responsibility, improve markets for secondary materials, or simply prohibiting export of waste. Thousands of jobs opportunities that can be created by increased recycling are now missed because of waste dumping and exploitation of workers in countries with low wages, low standards for health and safety and environment.