Taking responsibility for our waste challenges

“Waste traffickers exploit vulnerable populations in countries with lax waste regulations with devastating consequences, including child labour and escalating environmental and health problems.” MEP Cyrus Engerer (S&D)

Europeans generated an average of 35 kg of waste per person in 2020, 23% higher than in 2010. Of this, 32.7 million tonnes were exported outside the EU, representing 16% of global waste trade. In addition, around 67 million tonnes of waste are shipped between EU countries every year.

Meanwhile, Europe is grappling with a growing problem of waste trafficking, damaging both the environment and legitimate businesses. Waste trafficking has become a major source of illegal profits for organised crime, with estimates suggesting up to one-third of all waste shipments being illicit.

Today, the European Union has taken a major step forward in its endavours to curb this type of crime, protect the environment and human health more effectively, and contribute to the bloc’s circular economy and zero pollution goals. With 587 votes in favour, eight against, and 33 abstentions, MEPs gathered in Strasbourg for the European Parliament’s plenary session endorsed a deal reached with the Council on a European Commission proposal for updated EU procedures and control measures for waste shipments.

With the approved revision of the EU’s Waste Shipment Regulation, the rules for exporting waste from the EU to third countries will be stricter. Plastic waste exports to non-OECD countries will be prohibited within two and a half years after the entry into force of the regulation, while those to OECD countries will be subject to stricter conditions. Within the EU, the exchange of information and data on waste shipments will be digitalised through a central electronic hub to improve reporting and transparency. The law also establishes an enforcement group to improve cooperation between EU countries to prevent and detect illegal shipments. Shipping waste destined to be disposed in another EU country would be allowed only in exceptional circumstances, but the updated legislation will make it easier to transport waste for recycling and reuse in the EU.

Maltese Labour MEP Cyrus Engerer (S&D), who is the EP’s shadow rapporteur on this dossier, told The Journal that today’s development is good news for small EU member states like Malta, that lack the capacity to recycle their waste – such as paper and plastic –  due to economies of scale. Hence, they have no alternative to exporting it.

Engerer explained that waste traffickers exploit vulnerable populations in countries with lax waste regulations with devastating consequences, including child labour and escalating environmental and health problems caused by unsustainable waste management.

He emphasised that the problem extends beyond humanitarian and environmental concerns, impacting European industry as well. In light of other European legislation, such as the revision of the Packaging and Packaging Waste Directive – that sets minimum recycled content in plastic packaging manufactured in the EU – EU-based companies need recycled plastic. Therefore, shipping plastic waste out of the EU only to repurchase it later makes no economic sense.

Meanwhile, the EP’s rapporteur for this file, Danish Pernille Weiss (EPP), said that the revised legislation “will bring more certainty to Europeans that our waste will be appropriately managed, no matter where it is shipped to. The EU will finally assume responsibility for its plastic waste by banning its export to non-OECD countries. Waste is a resource when it is properly managed, but should not in any case be causing harm to the environment or human health.”

Following the final vote in the EP plenary today, the Council will now formally endorse the text before its publication in the EU Official Journal. The Regulation will enter into force in all EU Member States on the 20th day following its publication.

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