Plastics mines? Europe struggles as pollution piles up

11th May 2018 | Recycling

Europe has sent just over half the plastic waste it used to ship to China to other parts of Asia since Beijing’s environmental crackdown close the world’s biggest recycling market in January. The knotty problem is what to do with the rest.

Some of the surplus is piled up places from building sites to ports, officials say, waiting for new markets to open up. Recycling closer to home is held back by the fact that the plastic is often dirty and unsorted, the same reasons China turned it away.

Countries led by Malaysia and Vietnam and India imported far more of Europe’s plastic waste in early 2018 than before, European Union data show, but unless they or others make more, the only options will be to either bury or burn it.

Plastics Mines

In an overcrowded continent where landfills are much more restricted than elsewhere, burning is the obvious option to help generate electricity or heat from hundreds of thousands of tonnes of surplus waste. But more radical ideas, such as putting oil derived plastic back undergrounds to “mine” back when recycling becomes more sophisticated, are being aired as Europe tries to work out what to do.

European waste policies “ned to become much more nuanced, because some landfill might actually be quite good,” professor Ian Boyd, chief scientific adviser for the British government’s department of environment, food and rural affairs, told Reuters. “I’m putting out a challenge to the current system,” he said, referring to the fact that waste policies in Europe either ban or limit landfill but do little to restrict what has been dubbed “skyfill” – the release of pollutants into the air.

Europe has favoured the construction of power plants that burn waste for electricity or heat because land is scarce and landfills produce toxins and greenhouse gases such as methane as organic waste – from food to nappies – rots.

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