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Brace Yourself: EU faces “Massive Flood Of Plastic Waste” After UN Export Restrictions

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Finnish public health expert stresses the need for increased incineration capacity to prevent a disaster

Dr. Mikko Paunio of the University of Helsinki has warned that the UN’s decision to regulate waste plastic as hazardous and restrict exports will unleash a “surge of waste” on many EU countries. Paunio urges a rapid expansion of waste incineration capacity to stop the plastic waste problem turning into a public disaster.

Last Friday, a total of 187 countries voted to add hard-to-recycle plastic waste to the Basel Convention, a UN-led treaty that controls the movement of hazardous waste from one country to another. Exporters will now be required to obtain consent from recipient countries before shipping plastic waste that cannot be readily recycled. It is a strategy designed to curb the overwhelming buildup of plastic waste in Global South nations, particularly in Southeast Asia.

The new restrictions are a “major victory for the natural environment” – particularly the rivers and oceans of Asia – in the eyes of Paunio, but a victory that will leave the EU with a drastically increased and unmanageable volume of plastic waste.

After China banned the import of most plastic waste in 2018, developing countries such as Indonesia, Thailand and Malaysia have received huge influxes of contaminated and mixed plastic waste that is difficult or even impossible to recycle. Norway’s proposed amendments to the Basel Convention provide countries with the right to refuse unwanted or unmanageable plastic waste.

According to Paunio, the new restrictions will mean that exports of plastic consumer waste to developing countries will largely come to a halt and EU nations will “finally be left to face the reality” of a failed recycling system.

“It goes without saying that most of the recycling industry has vehemently opposed Norway’s proposal, and the US, a major recycler of plastic waste, was also opposed, although it is not a party to the Basel Convention. China may well have supported the initiative because it no longer imports recyclates. Finland and some other EU member states may have done so too,” Paunio notes.

Green NGOs were predictably in favor of the amendments, although Paunio believes they remained low-key actors in the process due to concerns that the problems caused by plastic recycling might become more widely known. […]

Paunio sets out his concerns in a new paper entitled Saving the Oceans and the Plastic Recycling Crisis, which the Global Warming Policy Foundation published this week.

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