Plastic waste

The problem of plastic waste has recently become more prominent, in particularly with heighented attention to plastic pollution of the oceans.1 Recent estimates of widespread nanoplastics in drinking water show another part of the problem.2 In addition, the recent import bans for certain plastic waste categories on the part of China have highlighted certain countries' reliance on exporting their plastic waste.3 In January 2018 the European Commission released its European Strategy for Plastics in a Circular Economy.

Who are the main net importers and exporters of plastic waste? The figure below shows the net exports of plastic waste in kilogram per capita in 2016. Negative values mean that imports were bigger than exports. We can see that the small Island nations Iceland, Cyprus and Malta were top exporters, and Belgium, Germany and the United Kingdom were among the main exporters among the bigger countries.



Latvia and Lithuania were among the top importers, with their neigbour Estonia being among the main exporters. Not everybody is happy about such developments, with a Latvian MEP complaining that Latvia has become a dumping ground for waste from countries with stricter environmental legislation.4  Similar sentiments may have been present in China, one of the main importers of plastic waste, when it recently introduced restrictions on such imports.5

Interestingly, we find some of the most economically advanced and environmentally concerned nations as net importers of plastic waste, such as Sweden6 and the Netherlands.7 However, such imports are less due to useful applications for recycled plastics but to waste incineration capacities that exceed domestic waste production.8

You can obtain rankings of countries in terms of net plastic waste exports in kg per capita for other years here

An alternative to exporting, incinerating or recycling plastic waste would be landfilling, albeit a rather dirty one. What is the relation between landfilling of waste and exports of plastic waste? The figure below suggests that in 2016 there was a mildly positive relationship between the kilogram per capita of overall waste that went to landfill and the amount of plastic waste per capita exported. On the one hand this may be determined by the overall waste produced per capita, with wealthier countries' citizens producing overall more waste, which may then be landfilled or exported. In addition, countries that practice a lot of waste incineration may engage both less in landfilling and in waste exports. Interestingly, it is often wealther countries, that practice more incinceration and less landfilling. The relationship between these indicators in other years can be analysed here.




Which countries were the most extreme outliers in terms of plastic waste exports? In the boxplot below we can see that Denmark was an extreme outlier in 2010, where its net exports of plastic waste peaked. This is likely to be related to the near doubling of its industrial plastic waste production from 2006 to 2010.9  However, we can also see that in the following years Danish plastic waste exports went back to normal.



The UK has recently been among the countries that has strongly felt the effects of Chinese plastic import bans, with a spokesperson of the UK Recycling Association describing it as a "huge blow". "We've relied on China so long for our waste… 55% of paper, 25% plus of plastics."10 It is striking that such an economically advanced nation, while having relied on China for relieving it from its waste burden, has considerably lagged behind in terms of obtaining patents in the area of waste and recycling. See figure below demonstrates that in 2015 the UK had a strikingly low number of waste management related patents per capita. It is possible that the 2015 numbers still suffer from reporting delays. However, in 2013, a year for which the data should be more reliable, the UK was also lagging behind, as can be seen here.



A similar picture emerges when one looks at academic publications on waste and recycling per capita. The figure below shows that the UK, an academic behemoth, clear does not lead the number of publication per capita in that area. Instead, we see some perhaps less expected above-average performers, such as Portugal, Slovenia and Serbia.



If China continues to stem the flow of plastic waste imports, countries such as the UK may feel the need to respond to new challenges, which may well lead to more research and innovation efforts in this domain.

Back to waste and recycling innovation system.