What will happen to Europe’s recycling market after the waste export ban?

The EU recently made the decision to ban plastic waste exports both within and outside of Europe. However, Valipac, a Belgian industry association, has warned that this could mean the plastic packaging recycling market could collapse as a result. 

The ban is part of a waste shipment regulation agreement reached on November 17. Under this decision, plastic waste collected in EU member states must be stored locally, potentially leading to incineration if there are no buyers for recycling within Europe or elsewhere.

Valipac, the Belgian industry organization responsible for commercial and industrial packaging waste collection and recycling, says that the inability to export collected plastic, coupled with insufficient recycling capacity in Europe, may result in a collapse in demand. 

Belgium, for instance, consumes 100,000 tons of commercial plastic packaging annually, with around 24,000 tons currently being exported outside the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), according to Valipac.

The challenge lies in the cost disparity between packaging made from virgin plastic and recyclate, making the former more economically attractive. Valipac notes that European plastic waste is primarily exported for recycling into secondary products, such as rubbish bags, due to low demand for recycled plastic within the EU, resulting in limited recycling capacity.

Valipac also warned that without intervention, the plastic packaging waste market is at risk of collapse due to a lack of sales outlets in Europe and the ban on exports to non-OECD countries. 

It added that, in the short term, until additional recycling capacity is established, the EU’s new waste shipment regulation could be hindering, rather than promoting, progress towards a circular economy. 

While environmental groups praise the EU’s political agreement as putting an end to “waste colonialism” from wealthy nations, the European Recycling Industry Confederation (EuRIC) acknowledges the need for more effort to recycle materials within Europe and prevent a crisis.

Valipac mentions that it already incentivizes businesses by offering a financial bonus for using plastic packaging containing at least 30% recyclate. But, European recycling industries face a new challenge with the surge in imports of plastics labeled as recycled (rPET), sold at prices that EU recyclers find challenging to compete with.

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