Tighter waste policies across Europe are leading countries to transport more waste material elsewhere – this is true for shipments between EU member states and also transfers of waste outside of the EU.

One driver is that some countries don’t have the facilities to recycle or dispose of particular types of waste, but rising demand for recyclable materials is also playing a factor, particularly in booming Asian economies.

International trade in recyclable material is expected to continue to grow, driven by more recycling, growing global competition for resources and increasing awareness of the value of waste.

Trade in hazardous waste is also expected to increase, although the driver in this case will be the need to treat waste in specific facilities that are not available in all countries.

The EEA study warns that the EU needs to put more effort into waste prevention to become more resource-efficient and it recommends encouraging new technologies and business models that generate less waste, or waste that is less hazardous.

EEA executive director Jacqueline McGlade said that European countries are exporting more waste than ever, but that the trade in non-hazardous waste can be seen as “largely positive” as material is often transported to places where it can be better utilised

“However, we should not lose sight of the bigger picture,” she countered. “In an increasingly resource-constrained world, Europe needs to dramatically reduce the amount of waste it generates in the first place.”

Looking at specific materials, exports of waste iron, steel, copper, aluminium and nickel from member states doubled between 1999 and 2011, while waste precious metal exports trebled and waste plastics increased by a factor of five.

The value of scrap iron and steel exports out of the EU has increased by a factor of eight between 1999 and 2011 to €18bn.

Waste copper, aluminium and nickel exports expanded by a factor of six and waste precious metals increased by a factor of 15. The value of annual exports to Asia has grown at an even greater rate.

Trade in waste wood has also increased steeply. Since 2003, EU imports of waste wood have exceeded exports. Imports of waste wood are primarily driven by the large demand of the particle board industry for wood material.

Another demand driver is energy production from solid biomass, which grew by more than 50 % between 1995 and 2008.

Meanwhile exports of hazardous waste materials such as incinerator fly ash, contaminated soil, batteries and oils grew by 131 % between 2000 to 2009 while the amount of hazardous waste generated in the EU increased by 28 % in the same period.

Flows of hazardous waste into the EU countries, from other EU member states and also from outside the EU, almost trebled between 2001 and 2009, reaching 8.9m tonnes.

Most hazardous waste exports stay within the EU, going to neighbouring countries. Most of this material is recycled or used as fuel, although some is still sent to landfill.

However, the study estimated that between 250,000 tonnes and 1,300,000 tonnes of used electrical products are shipped out of the EU every year to West Africa and Asia, much of them falsely classified as ‘used goods’ although in reality they are non-functional.

The illegal waste trade seems to be growing, the report notes, and says that the EU needs to intensify and harmonise inspection activities across member states to combat illegal waste transfers.

Maxine Perella

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