• Up to 31% of plastic exported from Europe for recycling doesn’t end up being recycled, a new study estimates.
  • Thousands of tonnes could be ending up in the oceans.
  • Technologies that enable traceability could help create a 'circular economy'.

Here’s a different perspective on the plastic waste problem. You’ve probably heard how 90% of the plastic in our oceans comes from just 10 rivers – eight of which are in Asia. But have you ever thought about where that debris actually comes from?

For at least some of it, the surprising answer could be Europe, according to a new study.

European countries benefit from sophisticated waste management infrastructure, and they’re collecting an increasing amount of post-consumer plastic waste. But 46% of plastic separated for recycling in the European Union, UK, Switzerland and Norway is still exported. This often ends up in South-East Asian countries, where a significant amount is rejected from recycling streams into overstretched waste management systems.

And up to 31% of this plastic isn’t recycled at all, according to research published in the journal Environment International. Instead, thousands of tonnes of it could be entering the ocean – up to 7% of the total exported, the study says.

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Estimated loss of polyethylene plastic into the ocean from recycling waste mismanagement.
Image: Environment International

What did the study look at?

To reach these numbers, the researchers looked at international trade and waste management data for destination countries. They then modelled what happens to all polyethylene – one of the most common types of plastic in Europe ­– that is shipped away from the continent for recycling. This ranged from being turned into recycled resins to ending up as landfill – or ocean debris.

Plastic

What is the World Economic Forum doing about plastic pollution?

More than 90% of plastic is never recycled, and a whopping 8 million metric tons of plastic waste are dumped into the oceans annually. At this rate, there will be more plastic than fish in the world’s oceans by 2050.

The Global Plastic Action Partnership (GPAP) is a collaboration between businesses, international donors, national and local governments, community groups and world-class experts seeking meaningful actions to beat plastic pollution.

It aims to show how businesses, communities and governments can redesign the global “take-make-dispose” economy as a circular one in which products and materials are redesigned, recovered and reused to reduce environmental impacts.

Contact us to join the partnership.

The study suggests that because exported recycling often has poor traceability downstream, true recycling rates may differ from those reported in the places the waste originates. And estimating the best-case, average and worst-case scenarios of ocean debris pathways from exported recycling in 2017, it proposes that between 32,115 and 180,558 tonnes - or 1% to 7% of all exported European polythene - ends up in the ocean.

Countries including the UK, Slovenia and Italy export a higher share of their plastic outside of Europe, the report says, which could mean a higher share of their recyclable plastic waste continues life as ocean debris.

What is the World Economic Forum’s Sustainable Development Impact summit?

It’s an annual meeting featuring top examples of public-private cooperation and Fourth Industrial Revolution technologies being used to develop the sustainable development agenda.

It runs alongside the United Nations General Assembly, which this year features a one-day climate summit. This is timely given rising public fears – and citizen action – over weather conditions, pollution, ocean health and dwindling wildlife. It also reflects the understanding of the growing business case for action.

The UN’s Strategic Development Goals and the Paris Agreement provide the architecture for resolving many of these challenges. But to achieve this, we need to change the patterns of production, operation and consumption.

The World Economic Forum’s work is key, with the summit offering the opportunity to debate, discuss and engage on these issues at a global policy level.

So what can be done about it?

Plastic is a cheap, convenient material whose benefits include helping to prevent food waste by preserving food and enabling the creation of lighter-weight parts to make vehicles more fuel efficient.

And the authors of the Environmental International report say their findings should not put people off recycling, which remains the best waste management treatment from an environmental perspective.

But they also warn that for Europe to realize its planned 'circular economy', this potential pathway for ocean debris needs to be blocked.

Making material flows more transparent could help – and there are some innovative ways technology could enable this.

The World Economic Forum report Harnessing the Fourth Industrial Revolution for the Circular Economy says information on optimal recycling methods can be introduced at batch or unit level for plastic packaging that could help downstream partners identify the materials.

This involves scanning what’s known as a cryptographic anchor attached to or embedded into the packaging, such as IN-Code’s programmable, tamper-proof, edible markers. These markers would enable traceability throughout the life of the packaging.

And in the near future, an “internet of materials” – a decentralized, standardized data system allowing a large number of parties, including downstream recycling operators, to securely exchange information – could also play a part.

For more on the Forum's work on plastics, please click here.