Waste plastic piling up at ports as shipments to China collapse
Europe has sent a little more than half the plastic waste it used to ship to China to other parts of Asia since Beijing's environmental crackdown closed the world's biggest recycling market in January. The knotty problem is what to do with the rest.
Some of the surplus is piling up at building sites and ports, officials say, waiting for new markets to open up. Recycling closer to home is held back by the fact that the plastic is often dirty and unsorted, the same reasons China turned it away.
In Ireland, waste disposal companies have slapped new charges on green recycling bins to reflect the challenge of coping with plastic waste that is no longer accepted in China for recycling.
Some alternatives are emerging. Malaysia, Vietnam and India imported far more of Europe's plastic waste in early 2018 than before, EU data show, but unless they or others take more, the only options will be to bury or burn it. Pressure on landfills means burning to help generate electricity or heat is one option. But more radical ideas, such as burying oil derived plastic underground to 'mine' when recycling becomes more sophisticated, are being aired.
European waste policies "need to become much more nuanced, because some landfill might actually be quite good," said professor Ian Boyd, chief scientific adviser for the UK government's department of environment, food and rural affairs. "I'm putting out a challenge to the current system," he said, referring to the fact that waste policies in Europe either ban or limit landfill but do little to restrict what has been dubbed 'skyfill' - the release of pollutants into the air.
European policy has favoured the construction of power plants that burn waste for electricity or heat because land is scarce and landfills produce toxins and greenhouse gases such as methane as organic waste - from food to nappies - rots.
Waste-to-power plants produce greenhouse gas emissions too, but in most of Europe they are exempt from carbon taxes of €14 a tonne in an industrial market.
Mr Boyd said buried plastic could become a valuable resource only if the penalties for emitting greenhouse gases, both in making plastics and burning them, were far higher than today.
Globally, plastics accounted for 390 million tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions in 2012, ranging from production to incineration and equivalent to the emissions by a nation such as Turkey, according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, a think tank that specialises in recycling.
The plastics industry takes issue with such assessments, saying they ignore the vast contribution of plastic in reducing other emissions by for example preserving food.
The Confederation of European Waste-to-Energy Plants (CEWEP), a group of some 400 plants using 90 million tonnes of municipal waste to provide heat and electricity for millions of people, said burying and then mining back plastic was a fantasy.
Plastic pollution is surging and could, according to the UN Environmental Agency, exceed the weight of fish in the oceans by 2050.
China, which used to process half the world's exports of plastic waste, has insisted on higher standards of cleanliness and sorting to keep out waste that cannot be recycled.
For Europe, the restrictions have so far acted as an effective ban, according to official data reviewed by Reuters which showed exports to China crashing by 96pc in the first two months of the year.
Nations led by Malaysia, Vietnam, Turkey, India and Indonesia took on around 60pc of the waste, but the surplus means Europe's market for low-grade waste has collapsed. (Reuters)