Recycling of European plastic is a pathway for plastic debris in the ocean
Polyethylene (PE) is one of the most common types of plastic. Whilst an increasing share of post-consumer plastic waste from Europe is collected for recycling, 46% of separated PE waste is exported outside of the source country (including intra-EU trade). The fate of this exported European plastic is not well known. This study integrated data on PE waste flows in 2017 from UN Comtrade, an open repository providing detailed international trade data, with best available information on waste management in destination countries, to model the fate of PE exported for recycling from Europe (EU-28, Norway and Switzerland) into: recycled high-density PE (HDPE) and low-density PE (LDPE) resins, “landfill”, incineration and ocean debris. Data uncertainty was reflected in three scenarios representing high, low and average recovery efficiency factors in material recovery facilities and reprocessing facilities, and different ocean debris fate factors. The fates of exported PE were then linked back to the individual European countries of export. Our study estimated that 83,187 Mg (tonnes) (range: 32,115–180,558 Mg), or 3% (1–7%) of exported European PE in 2017 ended up in the ocean, indicating an important and hitherto undocumented pathway of plastic debris entering the oceans. The countries with the greatest percentage of exported PE ending up as recycled HDPE or LDPE were Luxembourg and Switzerland (90% recycled for all scenarios), whilst the country with the lowest share of exported PE being recycled was the United Kingdom (59–80%, average 69% recycled). The results showed strong, significant positive relationships between the percentage of PE exported out of Europe and the percentage of exports which potentially end up as ocean debris. Export countries may not be the ultimate countries of origin owing to complex intra-EU trade in PE waste. Although somewhat uncertain, these mass flows provide pertinent new evidence on the efficacy and risks of current plastic waste management practices pertinent to emerging regulations around trade in plastic waste, and to the development of a more circular economy.