- China’s ban on plastic waste importation has triggered a rapid response from the European Union (EU).
- To boost the recycling economy, the EU’s strategy aims to increase the amount of recycled plastic into new products.
On January 1st, 2018, while markets were thriving and the world was celebrating the beginning of the year, China vowed to stop being the receptacle for the planet’s junk by banning the importation of 24 types of foreign waste. As more than 85% of European plastic was shipped to China in 2017 , this decision affects each and every player along the plastics industry value chain, from manufacturing to consumption and waste management. In this article, Greenfish will explain the legal, economical and social implications for all the stakeholders affected by this new situation.
Materials are already piling up in sorting facilities waiting for their fate to be decided. Although new recycling market players in Southeast Asia, such as Indonesia and Vietnam, are relishing this rising opportunity, they are not prepared to absorb such a large quantity of materials. They are rapidly reaching their legal limits, leaving containers in harbours waiting for their licences to be delivered . Moreover, it is not clear if these nations will be willing to permanently take over the task of recycling all of this plastic . The solution may not lie in finding another place that is willing to take care of what China refuses to treat. As Erik Solheim, Executive Director of the UNEP, thinks, “It’s a much better idea if nations overall take care of [their] own waste” , especially in a continent that boasts about its environmental performance. This could allow Europe to stay true to its environmental commitment and avoid the delocalisation of its own environmental impacts.
Europeans are becoming more and more concerned about plastic litter. 87 % of the population is worried about its environmental impact and 74% is worried about its impact on their health . In 2014, less than a third of plastic waste was recycled while another third was sent to landfills, and the rest was burnt in energy recovery facilities. This way of consumption has led to a situation in which up to 13 million tons of plastic end up in oceans each year  and in which we find 40 pieces of marine litter per square kilometre in the Mediterranean sea. If nothing changes by 2050, more plastic than fish is anticipated in the oceans .
- Only 6% of new plastic material comes from recycling
- 95% of the potential economic value of packaging goes to waste
- Failure to recycle costs the EU 105 billion EUR per year
- 49 million tons of plastic were used in the EU in 2015
- Most common single use plastic item found on EU beaches:
- 50% single use plastics
- 34% other plastics
- 16% non plastics
The way forward: European Commission strategy on plastic
Following China’s decision, the European Commission quickly reacted and drafted, on January 16th, a strategy regarding its plastic waste. It aims to address « the challenges posed by plastics throughout the value chain and take into account their entire life-cycle » . This is a turning point for the EU and its policy regarding a sector that represents 1.5 million jobs, €350 billion in annual turnover and 18% of the global plastic production .
At the heart of this strategy is the increase of recycling and re-use of plastics throughout Europe. This move would increase the sector’s sustainability but would also enable companies to tap into the circular economy potential and improve the standards with which plastic is currently produced, used and discarded. If the Commission’s position is adopted by the rest of the European institutions, by 2030, all plastic packaging will need to be either recyclable or reusable and added chemicals will need to be traceable in the sorting stream. Quality standards of waste sorting systems and recycled plastic will play a central role in output characteristics and will foster the creation of a EU-wide recycled plastic market that will aim to treat 10 million tons of material by 2025.
On the other hand, non-recyclable plastics, typically single-use plastics like straws or cups, represent 50% of the litter found on EU beaches . The Commission aims to curb their proliferation by studying legislation like disincentives and taxes on the production and usage of such items. Facing this central environmental issue, no matter how far the EU goes, local governments, companies and citizens will need to take action to tackle the challenges that lie ahead.
Some governments are already having a head start: on January 1st, France decided to remove cotton buds from sales and passed a law in 2016 imposing the biodegrability of all plastic cups, cutlery and plates by 2020. Great Britain vowed to eliminate all avoidable plastic waste within 25 years, beginning with a ban on microbeads that took effect in January.
China’s decision: turning a challenge into business opportunities
China’s decision has triggered an emergency response from the EU that could potentially unlock the hidden value in discarded plastic products. Designing products with the intent to re-use or recycle them would unlock 77 – 120 € per ton, according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation , and open a new economy that up until now was relegated to Asian factories.
Recycling, like many activities, is guided by competition and the rules of markets. Europeans must now move fast to create a profitable economy that will transform and use this vast amount of new material that is flooding the market and driving the price of recyclable plastics down. This decline in profitability is endangering waste collecting and sorting companies that until now had a reliable buyer halfway around the world.
Marco Mensink sees opportunities in this new situation that threatens the sector. The director of the Cefic, an association of the chemical industry representing more than € 550 billion in the European economy, intends to steal a page from other industries’ playbook and seize the opportunity. He says that like the glass, paper or steel industry, growth can be achieved by using recycled materials. For him, one of the main set-backs of plastic recycling is its heterogeneity. Raw materials are coming from a multitude of streams and this lack of consistency alters their quality. The harmonization of plastic sorting in the EU strategy will increase the chemical industry’s ability to use it as new, raw material .
Within this context, some major industrial companies took the leap and decided to go all-in on recycled plastics. Evian, the French water bottle company has pledged that its bottles will be made of 100% recycled plastic by 2025 (compared to an average of 6-7% for other plastic water bottles today) . Following this trend, Ecover (100% recycled by 2020), the Coca-Cola company (50% by 2030) and Werner & Mertz (100% in 70 million bottles per year) showed their relative commitment to the sustainable use of plastic in their business model . By doing so, they avoid the risk of falling into the constraints of the upcoming regulation and will boost the demand for recycling plastic, creating profitability for recyclers.
China’s decision could spark a revolution in the industry around the world as countries are now facing the externalities that were previously shipped halfway around the world. The Commission’ strategy, which could take months to implement, aims to simplify plastic manufacturers’s work by increasing the quality of the sorted plastic waste.
But even with the improvement in the incoming flow of material, the inexpensiveness and availability of gas and oil will still be tempting for industrial companies, so a future without these materials seems like a utopia for the moment. This could change if significant and widespread carbon pricing levels (well above the current 12€ per tCO2-eq currently traded on the EU-ETS market) were introduced in a global environmental European strategy, making it more attractive for industrial companies to use recycled plastic, thereby boosting the recycling industry. Such ambitious carbon pricing is a solution that Greenfish strongly supports.
Quentin Lancrenon – Project Analyst, Green Solutions at Greenfish
Jean Jacobs – Project Assistant, Green Solutions at Greenfish
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