EU trade in recyclable raw materials is on the rise


In 2021, exports of recyclable raw materials – which include recyclable waste and scrap as well as other secondary raw materials (by-products) – from the EU to non-EU countries amounted to 40.6 million tonnes, 2.0 million tonnes more than in 2020. We observe an upward trend in the volume of these exports since 2004, reaching a new peak in 2021 with an 80% increase compared with 2004 (+18.0 million tonnes).

Imports of recyclable raw materials from non-EU countries into the EU amounted to 46.8 million tonnes in 2021, an increase of almost 2.4 million tonnes compared with 2020 and 7% compared with 2004 (+3.2 million tonnes).

Ferrous metals and organic materials dominate EU trade in recyclable raw materials

In 2021, the exports of ferrous metals (iron and steel) from the EU amounted to 19.5 million tonnes, accounting for almost half (48%) of all recyclable raw materials exports. The second-largest category was products of animal and vegetal origin (4.5 million tonnes or 11%), followed by paper and cardboard (4.4 million tonnes or 11%).

In terms of imports to the EU, the largest category was products of animal and vegetal origin (24.8 million tonnes), accounting for more than half (61%) of all recyclable raw materials imports. The second-largest category was wood at 6.3 million tonnes or 15%, followed by ferrous metals (iron and steel) at 5.5 million tonnes or 14%.

Main trade partners: Turkey and Argentina

Turkey was the largest destination for EU exports of recyclable raw materials, with a volume of 15.2 million tonnes in 2021. The second-largest destination was the United Kingdom (5.5 million tonnes), followed by India (2.4 million tonnes), Egypt (2.0 million tonnes) and Switzerland (1.7 million tonnes).

In 2021, EU imports of recyclable raw materials were predominantly from Argentina (7.9 million tonnes) and Brazil (7.6 million tonnes), followed by Russia (4.8 million tonnes), the United Kingdom (4.6 million tonnes) and the United States (4.1 million tonnes).

For more information:

Dedicated section on circular economy

The news item is based on data from this  special data extraction.

Methodological notes:

These recyclable waste and scrap and secondary raw materials are recycled and re-injected into the economy as new raw materials. The scope of ‘recyclable raw materials, as a difference from the data on trade in waste, includes only waste that can be recycled. It also includes secondary raw materials (by-products). These are measured in terms of relevant product codes from the Combined Nomenclature used in International Trade in Goods Statistics.

By organic materials, we mean products from animal and vegetal origin not included in other categories of raw materials, according to the classification used in this publication. Examples of categories of vegetal origin are wood, paper or textiles from natural fibres, just to name a few. The definition of those products are aligned with the waste category W09, Animal and vegetal wastes. For more information, you can consult the table of correspondence enclosed in the previous paragraph.

Data on trade with the United Kingdom are not fully comparable with data on trade with other extra-EU trade partners. The United Kingdom is considered an extra-EU partner country for the EU for the whole period covered by this article. However, the United Kingdom was still part of the internal market until the end of the transitory period (31 December 2020), meaning that data on trade with the United Kingdom were still based on statistical concepts applicable to trade between the EU Member States. Consequently, while imports from any other extra-EU trade partner are grouped by country of origin, the United Kingdom data reflect the country of consignment. In practice, this means that the goods imported by the EU from the United Kingdom were physically transported from the United Kingdom but part of these goods could have been of another origin than the United Kingdom. For this reason, imports from the UK may be overestimated.

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