Europe descends into chaos following the Chinese ban of exporting foreign waste
Tue 28 Aug 2018
Europe has long prided itself on being an environmental leader and a champion of “the circular economy,” in which energy and resources are carefully husbanded, reused and recycled. However the truth is that much of its green success has relied on exporting its trash elsewhere. Until the beginning of this year, the Continent kept itself clean by sending millions of tons of paper, cardboard, plastics and textiles on cargo ships over the horizon to China. Of the 56.4 million tons of paper EU citizens threw away in 2016, 8 million ended up in China, purchased by recycling centers that turn it into cardboard and send it back to Europe as packaging for Chinese exports. That same year, the EU collected 8.4 million tons of plastic waste, and sent 1.6 million tons to China.
At the end of last year, Beijing put an end to the practice, putting in place strict limits on imports of foreign waste. Only eight weeks later, Europe is struggling to deal with mountains of plastic and paper waste. All the sorting centers are now clogged, the stocks are exceeding the allowed limits. The EU has to some extent become a victim of its own success. For years, European leaders have touted the benefits of limiting and reusing waste. Just last month, the European Commission presented its vision for the future of plastics, exhorting Europe to turn waste into an economic opportunity.
As problems cascade across the Continent, the European Commission is seizing the crisis to promote its vision of a clean economy. The Commission’s Plastics Strategy, announced in January, aims to make all plastic packaging recyclable or reusable by 2030, something that it says could create 200,000 jobs. For that to happen, Europe’s capacity to sort and recycle waste would have to be multiplied fourfold something that would cost as much as €16.6 billion. British recyclers hope that the pile up of material resulting from the Chinese ban, combined with the risk of not being able to export waste to the EU after Brexit, will prompt the government to overhaul its approach to waste management in its Resources and Waste Strategy, due later this year. But for the moment, the U.K. is still sending its waste abroad.
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