Questions and Answers on new EU rules on waste shipments

(Source: European Commission)

Why is the EU revising the rules on waste shipments?

Waste can be a valuable resource but it has to be used with care. When waste shipped across borders is not properly controlled and sustainably managed in the destination countries, it can harm human health and the environment. On the other hand, such waste can have a positive economic value and also bring environmental benefits. This is the case when it is recycled and used as secondary materials, therefore replacing virgin materials and contributing to a more circular economy.

International trade in waste is on the rise, and the EU plays a significant role in it. The Waste Shipment Regulation currently in force dates back to 2006. Since its adoption, exports of waste from the EU to third countries have considerably increased, notably to countries that are not members of the OECD. The lack of detailed provisions to ensure that waste is managed sustainably in the countries of destination has led to weak enforcement and environmental and public health challenges in those countries. In 2020, the EU exported around 33 million tonnes of waste to non-EU countries and imported around 16 million tonnes.

In addition, nearly 70 million tonnes of waste are shipped between EU countries each year. Administrative procedures limit the circulation of waste between EU Member States and this in turn is slowing down the move to a circular economy at EU scale.

Another significant problem is that illegal traders widely bypass existing rules, resulting in environmental crime in the EU and in third countries. Organised criminal groups increasingly focus on lucrative waste crime largely using legal business structures to perpetrate their activities. Coordinated enforcement campaigns indicate that between 15% and 30% of waste shipments might be illegal, amounting to EUR 9.5 billion annual revenues from the illicit waste market in the EU.

Overall, these developments have exposed the fragility of a business model where the export of waste outside the EU has become a common way of dealing with some waste streams generated in the EU.

To address all these issues, this proposal for a new Regulation puts forward a new approach to address EU shipments of waste, implementing the commitments of the European Green Deal, the new Circular Economy Action Plan and the Zero Pollution Action Plan and the new EU Strategy to tackle Organised Crime 2021-2025.

What does the Commission aim to achieve with this proposal?

The new Waste Shipment Regulation has three goals: ensuring that the EU does not export its waste challenges to third countries; making it easier to transport waste for recycling and reuse in the EU; and better tackling illegal waste shipments.

This will ensure that the EU does not export its pollution abroad and  waste is treated in a sustainable way, within and outside the EU, while supporting the move to an innovative circular economy. The proposed measures will impose high standards for waste management in third countries importing waste from the EU, which can bring environmental and economic benefits for these countries. These measures will also reduce greenhouse gas emissions and contribute to meeting climate targets, as they will encourage the uptake of recycled materials in the EU, which have a much lower carbon footprint than primary raw materials (such as coal, iron ore, bauxite, pulp, and oil) currently used by EU industry.  

A major reason for EU dependence on exports of some waste is that the EU generates too much waste. This proposal on waste shipments fits together with the overall EU objective in the European Green Deal to reduce the generation of waste. In the coming months, the Commission will propose additional new rules to achieve this objective, including regulating the design of packaging and other products to ensure that they do not result in waste that is impossible to re-use or recycle.

What are the main measures of the proposal on the export of waste?

To ensure that the export of waste from the EU to third countries is managed sustainably, the following measures are proposed:

  • For countries that are not members of the OECD, exports of waste from the EU would be made conditional on an official request from the country to import non-hazardous waste from the EU and demonstration that it can recover it in a sound manner. A list of countries authorised to import waste from the EU will be set up.
  • The Commission will monitor the levels of waste exports from the EU to OECD countries. If there is a surge in waste exports to one of these countries, risking serious environmental or public health problems in that country, the Commission will seek information on the treatment of this waste in the country concerned. The Commission will suspend export of this waste if there is no guarantee that this treatment is sustainable.
  • EU exporting companies would have to carry out independent audits for their waste exports outside the EU. These audits should demonstrate that the facilities treat this waste in an environmentally sound manner. EU companies would only be authorised to export to these facilities if this is the case.
  • To address waste being illegally presented as “used goods”, specific binding criteria will be developed to differentiate between waste and used goods for specific commodities of a particular concern, such as used vehicles and batteries.

What are the main measures on shipments of waste between EU Member States?

The following measures are proposed on the shipments of waste between EU Member States to unlock the potential of the EU waste market and boost the circular economy:

  • full digitalisation of all procedures governing the shipments of waste between EU Member States, in particular for “green-listed” waste;
  • New provisions to support the use of fast-track procedures for shipments of waste destined to recovery, when they are destined to facilities certified by the EU Member States (“pre-consented facilities”);
  • Harmonised classification of waste at the EU level, to help overcome the current fragmentation of the EU market, where a shipment of waste can be subject to different interpretations and procedures when crossing borders in the EU;
  • New provisions making it possible to streamline at the EU level the calculation of financial guarantees that operators have to establish before shipping “notified” waste abroad;
  • New and stricter conditions for shipments of waste for incineration or landfilling, so that they are only authorised in limited and well-justified cases, as they are the least preferred options for the management of waste.

What are the main measures to tackle illegal shipments of waste?

The following measures are proposed to tackle illegal shipments of waste and reduce environmental crime:

  • The European Commission will support transnational investigations by EU Member States on waste trafficking, with the help of the European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF), which has the relevant expertise. This will strengthen the overall enforcement capacity of the EU and its Member States and ensure more efficient use of the often limited resources for enforcement.
  • An EU ‘waste shipment enforcement group’ would be established to increase cooperation and coordination against illegal shipments of waste. This group would comprise environmental, customs, police and other relevant national inspection authorities, as well as European and international law enforcement networks.
  • Current rules on administrative penalties against illegal shipment of waste would be strengthened. Common criteria for determining the types and levels of penalties to be imposed for infringements would make penalties more deterrent and consistently applied across the EU. Member States should take these criteria into consideration when establishing penalties for offenders.
  • A revision of the Environmental Crime Directive is planned, which will provide for dissuasive criminal sanction types. Financial support to projects designed to help enforcement agencies work together to tackle waste trafficking will be provided further on.

Which waste streams are covered by the proposal?

The proposal covers all types of waste. The proposal would make it easier to recycle and re-use hazardous and other “notified” waste (non-hazardous waste subject to particular scrutiny, like mixed municipal waste and unsorted plastic waste) within the EU. There will be no major changes to the current rules on EU exports of such waste.

The proposal contains important changes on the export of “green-listed” waste. This waste is not hazardous but its treatment can still cause major environmental pollution and harm public health. The evaluation of the current rules on waste shipments has shown that new rules are needed to avoid green-listed waste being exported from the EU to countries and facilities that are not equipped to manage them in an environmentally sound manner. The proposal does not establish new rules applying to the shipments of green-listed waste within the EU. However, it proposes that this waste should be more easily traceable; notably the documentation accompanying their circulation should be digitalised.

What will happen to waste which, as a result of the proposed new rules, would stay in the EU rather than be exported? 

The aim of the proposal is to ensure that export only takes place when there are guarantees that the waste is managed in an environmentally sound manner. New measures on the export of waste will apply three years after the entry into force of the new Regulation, leaving sufficient time for preparing to direct waste streams to more sustainable treatment, but also for the transition to new business models and increasing the EU’s overall capacity to deal with the waste generated in the EU. It is therefore expected that treating additional waste in the EU will not only benefit the environment, but will also represent opportunities to improve the competitiveness of EU industry and support the creation of new jobs in the circular economy.

In particular, the impact assessment underpinning the proposal shows that there should be no major challenges for EU industry to process additional quantities of ferrous metal, non-ferrous metal and paper waste, which represent the highest share of waste currently exported outside the EU. The industries processing such waste (the steel, aluminium, copper, and paper industries) are already recycling substantial volumes and have the capacity to deal with additional quantities within the EU. Many industries are also planning investments to increase the uptake of waste in their production processes, which is a key feature of their decarbonisation strategy.

The EU market for recycling plastic waste is undergoing a fundamental transition. This is driven by ambitious EU and national policies designed to reduce plastic pollution, increase recycled content and by significant investments in the plastic recycling sector, supported through the EU Recovery and Resilience Facility and Cohesion Policy Funds. These efforts should lead to a substantial increase in plastic recycling capacity in the coming years, allowing additional plastic waste to be recycled.

The amount of textile waste generated in the EU has been increasing in recent years, as well as the export of such waste. There is currently limited recycling of textile waste in the EU but this will likely change in the future. In line with the European Green Deal and the Circular Economy Action Plan, the Commission plans to adopt a comprehensive Textile Strategy in 2022 to put the textile sector and its entire value chain on a more sustainable and circular path. This Strategy will consider regulatory measures to scale up the EU’s recycling capacity. This, together with ongoing research and investments in new technologies for textile recycling, should improve waste treatment standards and practices in the EU.

How will the EU work with international partners to address the problem globally?

The EU will spearhead efforts at multilateral, regional and bilateral levels to render global trade in waste more sustainable, as well as to promote better waste management practices and the uptake of more circular models in the economies of our partner countries. The EU will lead initiatives to this end in multilateral organisations, starting with the UN Environmental Assembly in February 2022 and the Conference of the Parties of the Basel Convention in June 2022. The EU will especially promote the adoption of a new international agreement on plastics, and support actions to reduce pollution from e-waste, used vehicles and textile waste, which pose particular environmental challenges worldwide.

For more information

Press release

Factsheet on the proposal for a new Regulation on waste shipments

Proposal for a new Regulation on waste shipments

Communication accompanying the proposal

Impact assessment accompanying the proposal

European Commission webpage on waste shipments

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