Europe’s Plastic Recycling is Getting Dumped in the Ocean

In one year, 180,558 metric tons of exported European polyethylene waste ended up in the sea.

Plastic floating in the ocean

 Shutterstock / NUI Galway

Plastic pollution is a slow-motion disaster happening right before our eyes. And despite efforts to export plastic waste for recycling, new research finds that almost one-third of it leaving Europe isn't getting recycled at all.

The enormous scale of global plastic production leads to an enormous amount of plastic waste, much of which finds its way into the oceans. It is estimated that there are currently more than 150 million metric tons of plastic waste in the ocean, where it will survive for hundreds, if not thousands, of years.

Public awareness about the plastic catastrophe has been growing, thankfully – but solutions are not as easy as they may seem. Take recycling.

Treehugger has long maintained that recycling is a farce – a scheme conjured up by big business to place the responsibility of (profitable) disposables into the hands of the consumer. We are tasked with cleaning up their mess, ostensibly by recycling. Meanwhile, recycling is disorganized, confusing, and broken. Of all the plastic waste we have created, only nine percent has been recycled.

Since wealthier nations don’t have the capacity to recycle all of their prodigious waste, much of it was traditionally shipped to China for processing. But in 2018, China closed its doors to foreign waste, leaving the world in a bit of a plastic pickle, scrambling to figure out what to do with it all. One solution has been to ship it to countries in Southeast Asia.

With this in mind, researchers from NUI Galway and the University of Limerick decided to look at what’s happening to exported recycling; and they have calculated the volume of that plastic that is ending up in the ocean. NUI Galway explains that while European countries have advanced waste management infrastructure, 46% of European separated plastic waste is exported outside the country of origin, writing:

"A large share of this plastic is transported thousands of kilometres to countries with poor waste management practices, largely located in Southeast Asia. Once in these countries, a large share of the waste is rejected from recycling streams into overstretched local waste management systems that have been found to contribute significantly to ocean littering."

The research team used detailed data from a variety of sources to assess the fate of all polyethylene exported for recycling from Europe, accounting for everything from successful conversion into recycled resins to ending up as landfill, incineration, or ocean debris.

Dr. David Styles, a lecturer at the University of Limerick and study co-author, explains:

"Given that such a large share of waste destined for recycling is exported, with poor downstream traceability, this study suggests that 'true' recycling rates may deviate significantly from rates reported by municipalities and countries where the waste originates.” 

He adds, “In fact, our study found that up to 31% of the exported plastic wasn't actually recycled at all." For 2017, they estimated that up to 180,558 metric tons of exported European polyethylene ended up in the ocean.

Graphic showing waste amount going into ocean.
Estimated loss of polyethylene plastic into the ocean from recycling waste mismanagement. NUI Galway 

Of the many obvious reasons this is important to know, one is that recycling rates are often calculated based on quantities sent for recycling, irrespective of the final fate of that separated waste, notes the study. Which is to say, those nice recycling numbers that some European countries boast? They are incorrect. And in fact, are a macrocosm of the wishful recycling we do at home – send it off and it will all be taken care of; out of sight, out of mind.

NUI Galway's Professor Piet Lens says, "To successfully move towards a more circular economy, European municipalities and waste management companies need to be held accountable for the final fate of ‘recycled’ waste.”

And if we are going to fix the plastic disaster, which is a major threat to ocean ecosystems and food chains, everyone else needs to be held accountable too; from the fossil fuel companies forcing plastic into the system to the corporations that won’t give up their cheap packaging to us, the people stuck with the responsibility of proper disposal. 

As a consumer, there is only one sure way to ensure that your plastic waste isn’t ending up in the ocean – don’t buy the plastic in the first place.

The study was published in the scientific journal Environment International.