Circular Economy

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Sabine Schwab & Ellen Gunsilius

Part of Europe’s electronic waste lies at the huge Agbogbloshie electronic-waste dump in Ghana. Fires are burning everywhere, sending toxic fumes over mountains of old refrigerators, computers and televisions. “Toxic city” is the name given to the dump that covers 16 square kilometres in Ghana’s capital Accra. An estimated 40,000 people live here.

The fact that it is known that most of the waste is exported from rich countries is largely due to the work of civil-society organisations, which have drawn increasing attention to the issue in recent years. In addition to e-waste, plastic waste is a particular focus.

In target countries, the waste is by no means always recycled, but all too often burned, landfilled or dumped. These practices cause harmful emissions, pollute the water and the soil and leave plastic traces in the entire environment. Various tests of soil and water that Greenpeace has conducted in Turkey have shown how the illegal landfilling and burning of plastic waste from the EU leads to excessive concentrations of substances that are very hazardous to health, such as chlorinated dioxins and heavy metals.

The export of plastic waste is not objectionable in itself. It can certainly be part of regional waste management in border areas. Smaller countries also do not always have access to the entire range of the necessary sorting and recycling facilities and are therefore dependent on exports.

If, however, target countries have lower waste-disposal standards and less developed infrastructure, the risk of improper disposal increases. In these cases, country organisations and multilateral institutions must regulate the shipment of plastic waste more strictly and prohibit export to poorer countries.

The EU, among others, has done too little in this regard. For many years, China was the main recipient of its plastic waste. Since the country largely closed its borders to plastic waste in 2018, however, more waste has remained in Europe, and exports have shifted to Southeast Asia and Turkey.

In 2022, the EU exported 1.1 million tonnes of plastic waste to non-EU countries. Every day over 3 million kilogrammes of plastic waste leave the EU – 31 per cent goes to Turkey, 16 per cent to Malaysia, 13 per cent to Indonesia and nine per cent to Vietnam. Great Britain, Australia, Japan and the USA also ship waste to poorer countries.

The motives of exporting companies vary. To some extent, exports are necessary if the country of origin lacks sufficient recycling capacity. Waste is also exported to save money, however. This is particularly true of plastic waste.

But even when waste is brought to a recycling facility, the whole input can never be fully salvaged there. Scrap material remains, which then must be disposed of at additional cost. The goal of illegal waste shipment is first and foremost to avoid disposal costs, for instance for incineration. For that reason, waste is purposely falsely declared or hidden in the back of shipping containers.

The European waste sector frequently maintains that these illegal exports are solely responsible for the improper disposal of waste abroad and that stopping this practice will simply require greater monitoring. However, this assessment falls short, because it is also the legal exports that often end up not being fully recycled due to inadequate certification systems at the foreign recycling facilities and a lack of responsibilities and tracking in the destination countries. These systemic deficiencies cannot be overcome by expanding monitoring alone; instead, they demonstrate the need for stricter regulations on waste export.

- Development And Cooperation

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