Last week, the European Commission proposed new rules governing waste shipments from EU countries. The regulation could be good news for communities around the world impacted by European plastic waste exports.
Currently, many EU governments ship their waste, including plastic waste, to countries with weak environmental regulations and little government oversight for environmental, health, and labor rights violations. Although plastic waste is ostensibly exported for recycling, only 9 percent of all plastic made has been recycled. Instead, it is often dumped or burned, exposing nearby communities and workers to toxic chemicals.
The consequences for human rights can be disastrous. Research has linked exposure to toxins in plastic to increased rates of cancer, neurological damage, and reproductive harms. Earlier this year, Greenpeace found illegally dumped and burned German plastic waste near communities in Turkey, the largest importer of EU plastic waste in 2020. People living near illegal plastic recycling facilities in Malaysia, another large importer of EU waste, reported respiratory problems and skin rashes when exposed to burning plastic. Plastic also contributes to climate change, which further threatens human rights, as fossil fuels are a major component of plastics.
The Commission’s proposal would create stricter rules on exports to non-OECD countries by requiring importing countries to treat waste in “an environmentally sound manner.” For OECD countries, like Turkey, the new regulation would ask importing governments to improve monitoring of recycling facilities and enforcement of trade rules. The regulation also seeks to ramp up penalties on illegal waste shipments and investigate waste trafficking.
However, the proposed new rules fail to meet the EU and its states’ treaty obligation to reduce waste exports. Exporting waste is also not aligned with the EU Circular Economy Action Plan, which calls for waste prevention and minimizing exports outside of the EU. Environmental groups are calling on EU states to go further and take full responsibility for their waste – and the resulting environmental, social, and health risks – by banning all waste exports from the EU and reducing waste.
It is now up to the European Parliament and EU countries to further strengthen and finalize the regulation. They should make use of this opportunity by pushing for more ambitious rules in line with international and regional mandates and protect the rights to health and a healthy environment for communities around the world.