Plastic pollution is surging and could, according to UN Environment, exceed the weight of fish in the oceans by 2050.
China, which used to process half the world’s exports of plastic waste, has insisted on higher standards of cleanliness and sorting to prevent waste that cannot be recycled being burnt, which, in its case, often means in open pits.
For Europe, the restrictions have so far acted as an effective ban, according to official data reviewed by Reuters which showed exports to China crashing by 96 percent in the first two months of the year.
Nations led by Malaysia, Vietnam, Turkey, India and Indonesia took on around 60 percent of the waste, but the surplus means Europe’s market for low-grade waste has collapsed.
A tonne of plastic waste for export, with up to 20 percent impurities such as paper labels, could be sold for between 25 and 40 pounds a tonne in April 2017, according to British recycling group letsrecycle.com.
Last month, by contrast, you had to pay between 40 and 60 pounds to get someone to take it away.
Despite this, Patawari Borad of the Bureau of International Recycling in Brussels said recycling within Europe had not increased dramatically. “One can only guess that this unsorted material is going for either energy or incineration.”
Waste-to-energy body CEWEP said it saw no sign extra plastic was being burnt. Incinerators would notice a higher share of plastics, Stengler said, because, tonne for tonne, they produce a lot of energy.
Proponents of the idea of burying plastic include Keith Freegard, a director of Axion Polymers in England, one of Europe’s leading recyclers of waste from cars and electronics.
“All those tonnes of carbon-rich waste material that were going into the landfill are now being released into the sky. Why are we allowing this free access to ‘skyfill‘?” said Freegard, who is vice chair of the British Plastic Federation’s Recycling Group.
“We should separate and store plastic in a well-controlled landfill as a future mine,” he told Reuters
To produce a megawatt hour of electricity, he said a waste-to-energy plant would need to burn 345 kg of plastic, emitting 880 kg of carbon dioxide. By contrast, a gas-fired power plant would generate the same amount of energy by burning 132 kg of natural gas, emitting just 360 kg of carbon dioxide.
Stengler and nations that favour waste-to-energy plants say such accounting is misleading and that waste-to-energy helps replace fossil fuels, a key goal of the 2015 Paris climate agreement to limit heat waves, floods, droughts and rising seas.
Swedish government estimates, for instance, show that three tonnes of municipal waste contain as much energy as a tonne of oil.
World production of plastics has increased about twentyfold since the 1960s and is expected to double again over the next 20 years, according to the European Commission.
Erik Solheim, head of U.N. Environment in Nairobi, said the global focus for plastic policies should be to cut use, especially products such as microplastics used in some cosmetics or drinking straws that he said were unnecessary.
“The best of all is to avoid the plastics we don’t need,” he said. Burying waste and mining it sounds “a difficult option”.
Of 27.1 million tonnes of plastic waste collected in Europe in 2016, 41.6 percent went to energy generation, 31.1 percent to recycling including in China, and 27.3 percent to landfills, according to Plastics Europe.
It was the first time that recycling rates exceeded landfills, it said
By contrast in the more spacious United States, 75 percent of 33 million tonnes of collected plastics was landfilled in 2014, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Fifteen percent was burnt and 9.5 percent recycled, it said.
And worldwide, a report by U.N. scientists in 2014 estimated that only about 20 percent of municipal solid waste is recycled, about 13.5 percent used to generate energy and the rest dumped.
(Reporting by Alister Doyle; editing by Philippa Fletcher)