EU exporting more waste, including hazardous waste

News Published 06 Nov 2012 Last modified 21 Jun 2016
4 min read
Photo: © jdnx
Waste is increasingly moving across EU borders, for recovery or disposal. This is true for waste shipments between EU countries, and also transfers of waste outside the EU, according to a new assessment from the European Environment Agency (EEA).

We should not lose sight of the bigger picture – in an increasingly resource-constrained world, Europe needs to dramatically reduce the amount of waste it generates in the first place.

EEA Executive Director Jacqueline McGlade

Increasingly stringent and harmonised waste policies in the EU have led countries to transport more waste material elsewhere, for example if they do not have the facilities to recycle or dispose of particular types of waste. There are increasing demands for recyclable materials, both within the EU and beyond, particularly in booming Asian economies.

While trade of hazardous waste grew between 2001 and 2007, shipped volumes decreased in 2008 and 2009, probably due to the economic downturn, according to the report ‘Movements of waste across the EU's internal and external borders’. Exports of waste plastics and metals picked up again after the economic downturn and exceeded the pre-2009 levels in 2011.

The international trade in recyclable material is expected to continue to grow, the report states, 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.

Overall the EU should put more efforts into waste prevention in order to become more resource-efficient, a key element of the EU 2020 growth strategy. The report recommends encouraging new technologies and business models that generate less waste, or waste that is less hazardous.

“European countries are exporting more waste than ever,” EEA Executive Director Jacqueline McGlade said. “The trade in non-hazardous waste can be seen as largely positive, as material is often transported to places where it can be better used. However, we should not lose sight of the bigger picture – in an increasingly resource-constrained world, Europe needs to dramatically reduce the amount of waste it generates in the first place.”

Non-hazardous waste

  • Exports of waste iron and steel, and 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.
  • Increasing export volumes and rising prices are both contributing to the growing economic importance of waste exports. The value of scrap iron and steel exports out of the EU has increased by a factor of eight between 1999 and 2011 to €18 billion. 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.
  • Transporting non-hazardous waste for recycling can have positive environmental effects overall, the report notes. Although transporting the material causes additional environmental damage and greenhouse gas emissions, these impacts are often much less than the environmental impacts of processing virgin materials.

Hazardous and electronic waste

  • Exports of hazardous waste, which may be explosive, flammable, irritative, toxic or corrosive, grew by 131 % in the period 2000–2009, 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 countries and also from outside the EU, almost trebled between 2001 and 2009, reaching 8.9 million tonnes (Mt).
  • Hazardous waste can include fly ash from incinerators, contaminated soil, lead batteries, waste mineral oils and other chemicals.  Most hazardous waste exports stay within the EU, going to neighbouring countries. The biggest importer of this material in 2009 was Germany (3 Mt) while the biggest exporter was the Netherlands (2.8 Mt). Most of this material is recycled or used as fuel, although some is still sent to landfill.
  • It is illegal to ship hazardous waste from EU Member States to countries which are not members of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). Old computers, home appliances and other electronic equipment should be collected separately under EU legislation.
  • However, a large volume of used electrical products are shipped out of the EU to West Africa and Asia, much of them falsely classified as ‘used goods’ although in reality they are non-functional. The report estimates this trade to be at least 250 000 tonnes every year, possibly much more. These goods may subsequently be processed in dangerous and inefficient conditions, harming the health of local people and damaging the environment.
  • The illegal waste trade seems to be growing, the report says, noting that the EU needs to intensify and harmonise inspection activities across the EU to combat illegal waste transfers.