EU auditors warn over plastics recycling infrastructure

The need for the UK and other European countries to increase infrastructure for the recycling of plastics is signalled in a review  from the European Court of Auditors, published yesterday (October 6).

And at the same time, the Court warns that there is a “significant risk that the EU will not meet its plastic packaging recycling targets for 2025 and 2030, according to a review by the European Court of Auditors (ECA).”

It comments that the “update of the legal framework for plastic recycling in 2018 reflects the EU’s increased ambitions and could help boost recycling capacity.” The UK agreed with the targets and is in the process of shaping them into UK targets which may go further than the EU.

The Review expresses strong concerns. It states. “The scale of the challenge facing the Member States should not be underestimated, however. New and more accurate recycling reporting rules and a tightening of plastic waste export rules will reduce the EU’s reported recycling rate. Concerted action is thus needed to get the EU to where it wants to be in just 5 to 10 years’ time, the auditors say.”

Recycling capacity

In a review of plastics recycling, based on data up to last year with the UK as a full member of the Community, the Review says that Member States will have to “increase and improve their recycling capacity” for three main reasons.

One is the quantities of plastic packaging waste that will become subject to the stricter controls of the Basel Convention (see paragraph 56) and thus not as easy or even not possible to export outside the EU for recycling.

A second reason is linked to changes in the definitions of recycling with the terminology and its application being tightened up to ensure only materials that are recycled are counted (which will include, for example the discounting of contaminants). The ECA explains this as: “The quantities of plastic packaging waste that are currently reported as recycled but will be reclassified as not recycled following the change in the reporting requirements.”

Plastics packaging has the lowest recycling rate (picture: European Court of Auditors)

And the third point is rising targets: “The required increase in quantities of plastic packaging waste recycled to meet the 2025 and 2030 legally binding targets.”


The report references data from Plastics Europe that the EU shipped 6.5 % of all plastic waste collected overseas. “This is equivalent to 20.2% of the plastic waste sent to recycling facilities. Shipments for recycling outside the EU account for 27% to 30% of reported plastic packaging waste recycling over the 2012-2017 period. This shows that shipping for recycling outside the EU plays a significant role in reaching the plastic packaging recycling targets.”

It notes that packaging alone, such as yogurt pots or water bottles, accounts for about 40% of plastic use and over 60% of plastic waste generated in the EU. “It is also the type of packaging with the lowest recycling rate in the EU (slightly over 40%).

“To address this growing waste problem, the European Commission adopted the plastics strategy in 2018, which included updating the 1994 Packaging and Packaging Waste Directive (PPWD) and doubling the current recycling target to 50% by 2025 and even 55% by 2030. Reaching these targets would be a significant step towards achieving the EU’s circular economy goals.”

‘Reverse incineration’

Samo Jereb, the member of the European Court of Auditors responsible for the review, said: “To meet its new recycling targets for plastic packaging, the EU must reverse the current situation, whereby we incinerate more than we recycle. This is a daunting challenge.  By resuscitating single-use habits amid sanitary concerns, the COVID pandemic shows that plastics will continue to be a mainstay of our economies, but also an ever-growing environmental threat.”

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