European plastic waste generation is risingAlthough plastics are used in many sectors, packaging accounts for roughly 40 percent of plastic materials demand in the European Union. It is therefore unsurprising that of the 29.1 million metric tons of plastic waste generated in 2018, the packaging industry accounted for the largest share, at 61 percent. Between 2005 and 2018, plastic packaging waste generation in the EU increased by 21 percent to 17.2 million metric tons. In 2018, Germany generated roughly 3.2 million metric tons of plastic packaging waste, making it the largest producer of plastic packaging waste in the EU. Although Germany produced more plastic packaging waste than any other EU member that year, Ireland was the largest producer of plastic packaging waste per capita, at 54 kilograms per person. This was roughly 30 kilograms more than the EU average.
How does Europe manage plastic waste?Recycling now accounts for 32.5 percent of plastic waste treatment in the EU, with landfilling and incineration accounting for 25 percent and 43 percent, respectively. The average recycling rate of plastic packaging waste in the EU has increased considerably in recent decades and stood at 42 percent as of 2018. EU plastic packaging recycling rates vary widely by country though, with some EU members recycling less than 30 percent of their plastic packaging waste.
Plastic waste that is counted as recycled is often shipped abroad for treatment, though the destinations typically lack efficient waste management infrastructures. EU exports of plastic waste peaked in 2014 at 3.24 million metric tons but have fallen considerably since then. China was once the main destination for EU plastic waste, but exports there have plummeted since 2018 as a result of China’s ban on foreign waste imports. Turkey and Malaysia have since become the top importers of EU plastic waste. On January 1, 2021, new EU rules came into force that prohibited the shipment of unsorted plastic waste to foreign countries, putting increased pressure on Europe’s recycling industry.