Irish study finds level of European plastic recycling being dumped in Asian seas

30 Jun 2020

Paradise Beach in Thailand covered in plastic. Image: © Stéphane Bidouze/

NUI Galway and UL researchers have quantified the volume of plastic recycling from European countries that is potentially being dumped in the world’s oceans.

The realities of what happens to Europe’s exported plastic recycling have been examined in a new study published to Environmental International. Researchers from NUI Galway and the University of Limerick (UL) said they are the first to quantify how much of this plastic makes it into the world’s oceans.

While European countries have developed some of the world’s most advanced waste management infrastructure, 46pc of European separated plastic waste is exported outside the country of origin, according to the researchers. A large share of this is transported to countries with poor waste management practices, largely located in south-east Asia.

Researchers said that once the waste arrives in these countries, a large share of it is rejected from recycling streams into local waste management systems that have been found to contribute significantly to ocean littering.

The researchers’ findings looked at the best-case, average and worst-case scenarios of ocean debris pathways from exported recycling in 2017. This estimated that between 32,000 and 180,000 tonnes – or between 1pc and 7pc of all European exported polyethylene – ended up in the ocean.

Countries including the UK, Slovenia and Italy are exporting a higher share of plastic outside of Europe and see a higher share of their recyclable plastic waste end up as ocean debris, according to researchers. Their findings are based on detailed international trade data and data on waste management in destination countries.

31pc of plastic not recycled at all

This helped model the fate of all polyethylene exported for recycling from Europe, accounting for different possibilities ranging from successful conversion into recycled resins, to ending up as landfill, in incineration or as ocean debris.

In a best-case scenario, Ireland contributed 170,461kg of plastic to ocean debris, equating to 1.22pc of its exported recycling. In a worst-case scenario, this figure could be as high as 956,692kg, or 6.84pc of its exported recycling.

“Given that such a large share of waste destined for recycling is exported, with poor downstream traceability, this study suggests that ‘true’ recycling rates may deviate significantly from rates reported by municipalities and countries where the waste originates,” said Dr David Styles of UL, who was a co-author of the study.

“In fact, our study found that up to 31pc of the exported plastic wasn’t actually recycled at all.”

Prof Piet Lens of NUI Galway added the findings indicate that European municipalities and waste management companies “need to be held accountable for the final fate of ‘recycled’ waste”.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic