WE’RE HIRING!: Rethink Plastic Alliance Coordinator

Apply by 28 February 2023.

Based in Brussels, Belgium

Purpose of the role

The Rethink Plastic alliance coordinator coordinates the alliance‘s work and supports synergies between advocacy work at the EU level and at the national level.

Key responsibilities:

  • Coordinate the implementation of the work of the Rethink Plastic alliance
  • Support the policy work of the members of the BFFP Europe movement
  • Contribute to the BFFP Europe and Rethink Plastic coordination team

About you 

You are a creative, passionate, organised person, as well as experienced in advocacy and campaigning. You know how to navigate the EU policy-making systems, design and implement advocacy strategies and explain complex issues to different audiences. You are very good at anticipating challenges, jumping on opportunities, and quickly finding creative solutions. You excel at personal relations and enjoy teamwork; are capable of running different tasks simultaneously; and like working in an agile international environment. You have experience working with EU institutions and in NGO coalition settings. You are passionate about environmental and social justice, with a particular interest in plastic. 

Person specification 


At least five years of experience developing and implementing advocacy strategies, at the national and/or EU level 

Experience in campaign coordination and/or project management 

Experience working in coalition or movement settings

Ability to interact with a variety of stakeholders including decision-makers, businesses, industry associations, local and national authorities and CSOs

Knowledge, skills and understanding 

Excellent written and verbal communication skills in fluent English, and the ability to communicate complicated messages clearly and appropriately to different audiences

Strategic thinking, with the  ability to leverage opportunities and synergies

Strong networking and team building skills appropriate for a multicultural and multidisciplinary environment

Personal qualities

Great interpersonal skills and team player

Excellent listener and communicator

Impact driven, solution oriented, and resilient

Commitment to accuracy, attention to detail and a high standard of work

Organised and able to prioritise 

Willingness to work with flexible schedule, and to travel, as required

Please click here for the full job description and person specification

About us

Rethink Plastic is an alliance of leading European NGOs working towards ambitious EU policies on plastics, it is the EU policy arm of the Break Free From Plastic movement. It brings together Carbon Market Watch, the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL), ClientEarth, Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), the European Environmental Bureau (EEB), the Environmental Coalition on Standards (ECOS), Greenpeace, Seas At Risk, Surfrider Foundation Europe, and Zero Waste Europe. 

To know more please visit https://rethinkplasticalliance.eu/ 

Break Free From Plastic (BFFP) is a global movement envisioning a future free from plastic pollution. Since its launch in September 2016, 2800 organisations from all over the world have joined the movement to demand massive reductions in single-use plastics and to push for lasting solutions to the plastic pollution crisis. Zero Waste Europe hosts the coordination of the European chapter of the movement. 

To know more please visit: https://www.breakfreefromplastic.org/ 

Location, Compensation and Work Environment 

This is a full-time position with a Belgian contract. We offer flexibility in terms of partially working from home, but candidates are expected to be able to commute to the Brussels office on a regular basis and when the job requires (this will be in agreement with your Line Manager). A valid working permit for Belgium is required.The initial contract will be for one year, with the possibility to be extended to a permanent one.

We offer a competitive gross salary in the range of €3500 – €4400/month, which is fully calculated according to your transferable years of experience, the requirements of the current job offer, and our internal salary policy. 

In addition to this, we offer benefits such as lunch vouchers; a 13th month proportional to your time worked during the year; 20 vacation days plus 4-10 extra-legal holidays; and travel insurance. 

We take pride in our ability to support one another’s work in an atmosphere of mutual trust and respect; and look forward to introducing the successful candidate to our welcoming and highly motivated team and network members.

Starting date: April – May 2023

Equal Employment opportunity 

At Rethink Plastic and BFFP Europe, we understand that not all individuals have the same opportunities to engage in paid work or studies both within and outside of the movement. We highly value passion and experience in addressing plastic pollution, environmental, social, health and human rights justice. We are open to receiving applications from those who may not fulfil all the required skills but have the interest, passion and lived experiences to fulfil the role. In this respect, we encourage people from a diverse intersection of backgrounds to apply. 


Please click here for the full job description and person specification

To apply, please follow this link where you will be asked to fill in your basic information and send your CV and motivation letter with references (all in one document). All these materials should be provided in English. 

If you have any questions, please contact Justine Maillot at  [email protected] by email stating in the subject line Rethink Plastic Alliance Coordinator. Please note that applications via email will not be accepted – only through the application form provided through the link above. Thank you. 

Deadline for application: 28 February 2023

Deadline extension: the deadline has been extended to Thursday 2 March 2023. Please ensure any applications are submitted before the end of that day.

First round interviews to take place on the 6 and 7 March 2023, online

Selected candidates will be requested to carry out an assignment (1h30 max) before the final round. 

Final round of interviews to be held on the 15 and 16 March 2023, in person in Brussels.

Due to the high number of applications, only short-listed candidates will be contacted.


“We are now plastic farmers” – the human cost of waste colonialism

Devayani Khare and Pui Yi Wong

“Plastic waste exports can have catastrophic impacts on the environment and human rights, especially the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment. Plastic waste ends up polluting water, contaminating air, and harming the health of people already facing poverty and marginalization. This is a terrible environmental injustice!”

~ Dr David R. Boyd, UN Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment.

On December 10, 1948, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) was passed – a milestone document which proclaims the inalienable rights that everyone is entitled to as a human being, irrespective of race, colour, religion, sex, language, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.

In 2022, 75 years later, 161 countries at the United Nations General Assembly passed a resolution recognising the right to a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment as a human right.

Yet, vulnerable communities globally continue to face injustice as a result of plastic waste mismanagement and pollution.

Millions of tonnes of plastic waste are traded globally every year. Several reports show that exported plastic waste often ends up in landfills, is burnt or incinerated as fuel, or is discarded into waterways. This has serious implications for the health and wellbeing of communities living at the fringes of dumpsites or factories, workers in unauthorised plastic waste recycling facilities, as well as the environment.

Here are personal stories of individuals and communities, the disproportionate costs they bear due to waste colonialism, and how their rights to health and a healthy environment have been violated.


In January 2018, China implemented its National Sword Policy to stop most plastic waste imports. Between January and July that year, Malaysia, a tiny country flanking the South China Sea, imported nearly half a million tonnes of plastic waste. What happened, and who is bearing the true costs of this reckless economic move?

Quote Source: The Recycling Myth report, Greenpeace Malaysia, 2018.

Quote Source: Lay Peng Pua, Kuala Langat Environmental Action Association.


Rural communities in Indonesia who worked in lush-green maize and paddy fields not so long ago, have turned to waste work today. Places like Kragilan and Bangun village in East Java have become dumpsites, where plastic scraps shipped along with waste paper imports are discarded or incinerated. 

Sifting through plastic scrap has become a community-level cottage industry. Waste pickers and communities living around recycling factories constantly breathe in toxic fumes generated by burning plastic. These images are from Bangun, East Java, Indonesia.

Quote source: DISCARDED: Communities on the Frontlines of the Global Plastic Crisis report, by GAIA.

Image credits: Fully Syafi/ECOTON

Image credits: ECOTON


As awareness increases in some countries across Southeast Asia and restrictions on plastic waste imports are implemented, Turkey has become Europe’s plastic waste destination. 

This resulted in a surge in illegal disposal methods: dumping and burning of imported garbage has been reported in İzmir and İstanbul, with much of the activity centred in Adana.

The recent influx of EU plastic waste imports also contributed to the growth of the plastic recycling sector, harming the health of workers and nearby communities. 

In the past 16 years, there has been a 241-fold increase in plastic waste importation to Turkey – the soil, air and water around dumping sites bear testimony to the chemical poisoning caused by burning plastic waste.

Image credits: Caner Ozkan / Greenpeace (via Basel Action Network on Flickr – CC BY-SA-NC), Human Rights Watch.

Quote source: “It’s as if they’re poisoning us”: the health impacts of plastic recycling in Turkey, Human Rights Watch.

The Philippines

In 2014,  the Philippine Commission on Human Rights (CHR) issued a “Fifteen-Point Human Rights Agenda” to uphold “the people’s right to chemical safety” which “acknowledges that trade of toxic wastes, products and technologies, collectively toxic trade, also forms a disincentive towards attaining Zero Waste resource management.”

Human rights defenders have organised protest rallies to defend their right to a healthy environment, drawing attention to the fate of mixed plastic trash being dumped in the country, and even ensuring the repatriation of more than 100 shipping containers back to Canada in 2019 and South Korea in 2020.

Image 1 credits: courtesy Greenpeace Philippines and EcoWaste Coalition, first published in the report: Waste trade in the Philippines: How local and global policy instruments can stop the tide of foreign waste dumping in the country, March 2020.

Who is responsible?

Perpetrators of waste colonialism must be held accountable for these human rights abuses. The adverse impacts of waste trade on human rights is faced disproportionately by developing countries – to better protect these communities, PLASTIC WASTE TRADE MUST STOP!

“We are in the midst of a worldwide plastics crisis. International waste trade creates an illusion of proper recycling, when there is actually a geographical shifting of the plastic waste problem, affecting the rights of the most vulnerable. 

A human rights-based approach calls for a vision of plastics policy that aligns with scientific evidence, centres on principles of non-discrimination, accountability and informed participation and gives special attention to the needs of people in vulnerable situations. 

Strict controls must be instituted to prevent further pollution and to hold plastics and chemical producers accountable for the damage already caused, including remediation and compensation.

Safeguarding the human rights of present and future generations that are compromised by the growing toxification of the planet demands that the international community reverse the plastics crisis.” 

Dr Marcos A. Orellana, UN Special Rapporteur on toxics and human rights.

What can we do?

This World Human Rights Day, there are glimmers of hope

Communities impacted by the negative impact of plastic waste imports from Asia, Africa and Latin America have called for an end to the practice. Countries have tightened controls in attempts to stem pollution from plastic waste imports, while Thailand plans to phase out all imports by 2025

On December 1, the Environment Committee of the European Parliament voted to set a ban on EU plastic waste exports to OECD and non-OECD countries, as part of the revision of the EU Waste Shipment Regulation. The European Parliament Plenary will have to confirm these measures in another vote, followed by the Council. 

Keep up the pressure to ensure the export ban gets confirmed, and that the final decision includes stronger measures against waste dumping within the EUsend this letter to European embassies in your country!

You can also help raise awareness about what’s wrong with plastic waste exports, or better still, sign our #StopShippingPlasticWaste petition!



Discarded – Communities on the frontlines of the global plastic crisis – Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA).


The Recycling Myth: Malaysia and the Broken Global Recycling System – Greenpeace Southeast Asia 

THE RECYCLING MYTH 2.0: The Toxic After-Effects of Imported Plastic Waste in Malaysia – Greenpeace Southeast Asia


Plastic Waste Flooding Indonesia Leads to Toxic Chemical Contamination of the Food Chain, IPEN, Nexus3 Foundation, Arnika Association and ECOTON


Waste trade in the Philippines: How local and global policy instruments can stop the tide of foreign waste dumping in the country, Greenpeace Philippines and EcoWaste Coalition, March 2020


“It’s as if they’re poisoning us”: the health impacts of plastic recycling in Turkey, Human Rights Watch

Game of Waste, Greenpeace Mediterranean

Video: EU decision makers visit pellet polluted petrochemicals site in Ecaussines, Belgium

For over a decade, the town of Ecaussines in Belgium has been facing the destructive impacts of pollution from Plastic Pellets also known as nurdles, spilled by the petrochemical complex present in the area.

160,000 tons of pellets are dumped into the environment every year in Europe 🇪🇺 Last March, Surfrider Foundation Europe and the Rethink Plastic alliance decided to invite decision makers to witness this pollution with their own eyes.

Once again, the industries are proving that the voluntary Operation Clean Sweep initiative is not working to reduce plastic pellet pollution – as shown in other cases such as Tarragona.

Packaging at the core

Overall production of packaging and packaging waste has steadily grown over the past 20 years. 2018 in Europe saw a record 174 kg of packaging waste per person, while between 2009 and 2019, paper & cardboard were the main type of packaging waste per weight (32.2 million tons in 2019), ahead of plastic and glass (15.4 and 15.2 million tonnes, respectively, in 2019). 

Packaging at the core of pollution

Currently, most packaging in Europe is:

Single-use:  with enormous environmental impacts from production down to waste, including resource extraction; use of raw materials; land, energy, and water use; and CO2 emissions. As levels for single-use packaging continue to rise, current waste management systems cannot cope. 

Warming our planet: It has been estimated that CO₂ emissions from materials used for packaging are more than those caused by global aviation. In order to manufacture one  kilogram of plastic, 3.5 kg of CO2 are emitted into the atmosphere. Global emissions from incineration of this particular type of plastic packaging (40% of plastic demand) waste amounted to 16 million metric tons of CO2e in 2015.  In 2019, the global production and incineration of plastic (including plastic packaging) emitted more than 850 million metric tons of greenhouse gases — equal to the emissions from 189 five-hundred megawatt coal power plants. 

Putting our health at risk: In Europe alone, over 8,000 chemicals can potentially be used in food packaging, tableware, and other food contact materials, with many of these chemicals linked to cancer, harm reproduction, and hormone disruption

➡️  More about chemicals in food contact materials can be found in these infographics.

Wasting our food: 37% of all food sold in the EU is wrapped in plastic packaging. Packaging, which should protect food and increase its shelf life, is often found to be a driver of food waste. Recent research  has shown that wrapping fresh products in plastic packaging does not make them last longer, but rather adds to pollution and food waste. The research concluded that when food products were sold loose, and the best-before dates removed, it could save more than 10,300 tonnes of plastic and about 100,000 tonnes of food from being wasted each year – the equivalent of 14 million shopping baskets of food. Packaging often forces people to buy more than they need, while oversized  packaging and packaging items that are difficult to empty also lead to the waste of perfectly edible food. 

Non-recyclable and not recycled: the overwhelming majority of packaging doesn’t get recycled. Most statistics available on the recyclability of packaging are inaccurate, as the current waste management scenarios do not reflect the real conditions of the sector. Just because a product is recyclable does not mean it will be collected, recycled and turned into new materials and products. Most often, waste management infrastructures lack the functionality to deal with different formats of packaging . The greater the mix of materials within the packaging, the lower the overall quality the recycled material becomes. Currently, most single-use packaging placed in the EU market is made out of complex materials; involving different materials or layers, as well as many different types that should not be recycled together. The presence of many chemicals in packaging along with food leftovers also hampers recycling. Furthermore, current recycling statistics do not take into account the inappropriate disposal. 


Traded as waste sent to countries outside Europe: where it is usually burnt, landfilled, or leaked in the environment. The European Union relies heavily on international trade for its overgeneration of plastic and packaging waste. In 2019, the EU exported a monthly average of 150,000 tonnes of plastic waste beyond its borders. In 2017, plastic packaging accounted for 75% of the plastic waste exported (by weight). Since most single-use packaging are not recyclable, they are exported “for recycling” to third countries – mainly to countries in the Global South with significantly more limited waste management infrastructures. In fact, a third of the plastic packaging destined for recycling is shipped outside of EU territory, where control over whether the recycling process actually happens (or happens under the right conditions) cannot be monitored. 

Packaging at the core of the solution

As a principle, packaging that cannot be safely used, reused and recycled at the end of its life should not be produced or placed in the market in the first place. The solution to stop this packaging pollution chain is logical: the less packaging we produce, use, and discard, and the less materials we extract, the better for our environment and society. 

This is why it is crucial to think upstream: rethinking and redesigning packaging so that these products are toxic-free, circular by design, and contribute to regenerating ecosystems instead of polluting them. 

Reducing and redesigning packaging is key to solving most of the problems above. By eliminating packaging that we don’t need, we can save resources, reduce emissions, and minimise waste. A good example is the French Circular Economy Law  which seeks to reduce single-use plastic packaging and to develop alternatives such as bulk or reusable packaging. As of 1 January 2022, plastic packaging is banned for most fruits and vegetables in France.

Rethinking the purpose of packaging itself helps to not only prevent packaging waste, but also to prevent food waste as consumers can buy exactly what they actually want to consume – not more, not less!  Promoting local and short supply chains, such as farmers’ markets, community supported agriculture schemes, and basket delivery systems have great potential to connect consumers to the production of food in ways that can help to reduce food and packaging waste.

Reusable packaging systems are a crucial element to this equation. The more times a product can be used, the lower its negative environmental impact, regardless of its material. A reusable glass bottle has 85% less emissions than its single-use counterpart; 70% less emissions than a single-use PET bottle; and also 57% less emissions than a single-use aluminium can.  Setting up well-managed pool systems for washing and redistribution of reusable packaging, is a key instrument to make efficient and effective reuse systems work. 

Specifically on safe, toxic-free packaging, EU legislation is required to phase out the most hazardous chemicals and ensure packaging is safe for use, reuse and recycling. Manufacturers can already introduce  innovative solutions and/or by scaling up existing safer solutions for packaging (e.g. avoiding toxic glues and inks, using glass or metal containers for reusable options). 

Sustainable packaging systems and take-back systems such as deposit return schemes (DRS) enable the return of packaging to the system to be preferably reused, or recycled; and it should be among the high-priority solutions and measures to achieve true circularity for packaging. 

By redesigning packaging with circularity in mind, it is possible to reduce uses of hazardous chemicals; reduce food waste; and get rid of 75% of the waste that is currently being exported, thus mitigating climate change impact through the reduction of carbon footprints. It will also allow us to ensure that this packaging is primarily reused and effectively recycled in Europe at the end of its life. 

This blog is based on the Packaging at the Core Paper, as part of our #GetBack and We Choose Reuse campaigns.

A visual representation of this blog can be found in these infographics.

WeChooseReuse – Ekologi brez meja succeeds in winning support for reuse from Slovenian decision-makers

With the right support and conditions, reuse can thrive in Europe, and lead to a much needed effective reduction in plastic use and pollution while supporting a healthy environment and society. 

Reuse is a system in which products and packaging accomplish multiple trips or rotations within their life span, by being returned to a producer and re-used for the same purpose in which they were originally conceived, as opposed to single-use products and packaging designed to be disposed of after one use. Successful reuse systems require infrastructures like refill stations, collection points, storage, cleaning facilities and transport to ensure the packaging or product can go back to the producer for reuse or refill. Systems like this have existed before, and they can exist again. Remember the milk man?

That’s why the Rethink Plastic alliance and #breakfreefromplastic movement are calling on EU decision makers to tackle the significant human health and environmental impacts caused by single-use plastics production and waste by supporting reuse and signing the We Choose Reuse commitment

We need everyone on board for the reuse revolution ! The support of EU decision-makers is particularly critical and timely. The EU is currently designing policies that have the potential to  make reuse the new normal in the EU, notably the Ecodesign for Sustainable Products Regulation, the Packaging and Packaging Waste Directive and the EU Taxonomy on sustainable finance. 

For inspiration on how to engage decision-makers, our #breakfreefromplastic Slovenian member Ekologi brez meja offers their effective engagement process, which gained support from three Slovenian MEPs for reuse – Irena Joveva, Milan Brglez and Franc Bogovič


“Gaining support for #WeChooseReuse from almost half of the Slovenian representation in the European Parliament, who represent from different political backgrounds, is a great forecast for reuse in the EU.” shares Public Relations President at Ekologi brez meja Katja Sreš. “We have used the prepared materials by the #WeChooseReuse campaign team and distributed them among all our MEPs with a given deadline for response. “The teams of Irena Joveva, Milan Brglez and Franc Bogovič responded within minutes and once again lent their voice to one of our causes. I am positive if we would be even more persistent and would send out reminders to the others, we would also get on board with the other five members. Nevertheless, this will be our mission in the next decision-makers call to action.” 

There is an appetite for reuse within and beyond the European Union. By actively engaging with MEPs and using the #WeChooseReuse campaign to illustrate the benefits of reusable systems, EBM have set an inspiring example of what can be achieved through effective engagement. 


Want to do the same? We provide plenty of useful resources for reuse policies, from a guide to setting effective reuse targets to recommendations on how the EU can support the grocery retail sector in reducing packaging and plastic pollution. Feel free to use our above assets, and share using #WeChooseReuse for dissemination and amplification. You can also contact [email protected] or via @RethinkPlastic on Twitter and LinkedIn and we’ll help you take the first step! 

The impact of the EU’s plastic waste trade: a Rethink Plastic alliance event in collaboration with MEP Cyrus Engerer

European Parliament, 11 May 12:00 – 14:00 (hybrid event)

What’s the impact of EU plastic waste trade and how can the EU end its damaging practices and achieve a circular economy?

As all eyes are on the revision of the Waste Shipment Regulation, the Rethink Plastic alliance invites you to the European Parliament to this crucial hybrid event calling on the EU to implement a full ban on EU plastic waste exports.


12.00- 12.30: Light lunch provided
12.30 – 12.35: Welcome, introductory remarks from MEP Cyrus Engerer
12.35 – 12.45: Screening extract of documentary The Recycling Myth on illegal exports to Turkey
12.45 – 13.30: Speeches from:

  • Krista Shennum, Fellow, Human Rights Watch
  • Yuyun Ismawati, Founder of the Indonesian NGO Nexus 3 Foundation, Goldman Environmental Prize Winner 2009
  • Sedat Gündoğdu, Associate Professor, Cukurova University
  • Emmanuel Katrakis, Secretary General, EuRIC
  • Lauren Weir, Ocean Campaigner, Environmental Investigation Agency and the Rethink Plastic alliance

13:30 – 13:50: Q&A with the participants, moderated by the Rethink Plastic alliance
13:50 – 14:00 Closing remarks by MEP Cyrus Engerer

You can register here by 5 May. You can join the event online here.

For further information, contact [email protected]

UNEA 5.2 and the prospect of a Global Plastics Treaty

The following text is courtesy of the Center for International Environmental Law.
For more information, see their policy briefing.

Plastic is a growing crisis for the environment, human health, human rights, biodiversity, and the climate — actions to address it are needed NOW at the global level. 

Momentum is rising. Civil society groups, scientists & academics, a majority of UN Member States, and a wide variety of business and industry voices are now calling for the negotiation of a strong new international agreement to address the plastics crisis.

The fifth session of the United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA5.2) — happening from February 28th to March 4th, 2022 in Nairobi, Kenya —  is the time to build on this momentum. Governments must agree to mandate an ambitious new global agreement, with specific legally-binding provisions and obligations to prevent and remediate pollution from plastic and its toxic impacts.

Civil society groups are joining forces to demand such an instrument and call for the inclusion of measures along the entire life cycle of plastics, from the extraction of feedstocks and production to transport, use, disposal, and remediation. This process must be predicated on a just and robust system for ensuring stakeholder participation and meaningful implementation at all levels under a human rights-based approach.

For resources and more information visit www.plasticstreaty.org 

#WeChooseReuse: Waste Trade and the importance of moving from single-use plastic to reuse

Levels of plastic production, consumption and use are hugely damaging. Reuse measures will enable their reduction, writes Lauren Weir, Ocean Campaigner at the Environmental Investigation Agency.

The #WeChooseReuse campaign, the objective being to replace single-use plastic with reusable systems and products, has many different facets. Whether that be consumer choice at the individual level, different business refill systems and deposit return schemes to policy facilitating this transition at scale. But all amount to one objective: the clear reason for this campaign being that levels of plastic production, consumption and use are hugely damaging, and these measures will enable their reduction.                                                                                                                                                                               

In tandem we are also calling on Europe to responsibly manage the treatment of its plastic waste, including through banning shipment of extra-EU plastic waste exports[1] – an irresponsible practice under the guise of recycling that in fact creates immeasurable harm to society, health and the environment[2]. This is felt particularly in countries in the Global South, who are the major recipients of this EU waste destined for “recycling”, despite having infrastructure that is overwhelmed resulting in European plastic waste that should be recycled being incinerated, landfilled or illegally dumped.

“Waste colonialism is an environmental justice issue, Europe is dumping its plastic waste onto others whilst touting itself as an environmental leader.”

A recent Greenpeace investigation helped document this occurring at scale in Turkey, finding UK plastic waste[3] and German plastic waste[4] destined for recycling illegally dumped. In 2020 alone they legally exported 210,000 and 136,000 tonnes of plastic waste to Turkey respectively. To better comprehend the scale of the issue, in combination, Europe sends approximately 241 truckloads of plastic waste to Turkey per day[5]. A country where an OECD Environmental Performance Review has reported it sends 90% of its waste to landfill[6].

We have identified a solution in the form of 5 key recommendations:

Rethink Plastic Alliance Waste Shipment Regulation Recommendations (for Plastic Waste)  

Ban on plastic waste exports outside of the European Union  
Fully implement the Basel Convention within Europe to increase transparency and allow for prior informed consent  
Establish a clear distinction between mechanical recycling and any other kind of recovery for treatment operations, like chemical recycling, to in turn apply the waste hierarchy  
– Set a European-wide threshold for waste contamination of 0.5% to improve the quality of the recyclate  
Ensure publicly accessible access to waste trade data to facilitate monitoring, enforcement and accountability  

But how are our #WeChooseReuse campaign and our plastic waste recommendations[7] interlinked? And how will eliminating plastic waste exports facilitate reuse systems and lead to plastic reduction?

If Europe were to take full responsibility of its plastic waste treatment it will reduce the risk of plastic waste leakage[8], enhance circularity, and operate within Europe’s finite recycling sector[9] – facilitating reduction and subsequently paving the way for reuse.

Figure 1 – Exports and shipments, like waste to energy recovery, landfill and incineration, are an externality to a circular economy. Source: https://www.eca.europa.eu/Lists/ECADocuments/RW20_04/RW_Plastic_waste_EN.pdf

Simply put, the export of extra-EU plastic waste is a result of Europe’s overconsumption of plastic and single-use economy. Therefore, Europe needs to export its plastic waste as it fails to handle the majority of it in an environmentally sound manner. For instance:

  • Energy recovery is the most common method of treating European plastic waste, followed by landfill. Only approximately 30% of all the generated plastic waste is collected for recycling and recycling rates by country vary a lot[10].
  • In 2018 the EU exported 6.5% of all plastic waste collected, the equivalent of 20.2% of all plastic waste sent to recycling facilities[11].
  • Between 2012 – 2017 approximately 30% of all plastic packaging waste destined for recycling was exported[12]., the largest volume of plastic product put on the European market that is also principally single-use[13].
  • For context, in 2019 this amounted to the EU      exporting a monthly average of 150,000 tonnes of plastic waste[14] and not all of this waste is actually being recycled.
  • The European Parliament states that the production and incineration of plastic emits about 400 million tonnes of CO2 globally per annum, a part of which could be avoided through better recycling but principally reduction[15].

Dumping European plastic waste in the form of exports is convenient[16], cheaper and a form of greenwashing[17], as this practice is externalising many costs that Europe is responsible for[18]. Europe uses these exports to then state it’s achieving its often over-estimated recycling objectives[19]. Despite this, it seems the EU target of 50% of all plastic packaging should be recycled by 2025 will still not be met[20].

This is further facilitated by the illegal shipments of plastic waste[21]. The illegal EU waste trade  annual revenue ranges between 4 and 15 billion euros (midpoint figure of 9.5 billion)[22]. The illegal shipment of plastic waste, end-of-life vehicles and e-waste are expected to increase[23]. Least transboundary movement of waste facilitates transparency and reduces the risk of illegal shipments[24].

Europe has been able to continue consuming high levels of (principally single use) plastic because it knows it can export the problem of its treatment elsewhere, either through currently legal channels or unaccounted illegal shipments. By stopping exports, and accounting for European recycling targets, current recycling capacity and the Commission’s acknowledgement of the need of incineration moratoriums[25], Europe is in turn acknowledging the need for and would need to enact a further absolute reduction in plastic consumption. Consequently, by maintaining waste produced, linearity of production to disposal would be somewhat halted, facilitating circularity.

Operations and consumption of products that currently rely on plastic, including in the form of single-use packaging, would continue. In turn providing the opportunity and demand for reuse and refill to be adopted at scale – the only viable replacement to our current throwaway culture. The subsequent necessity to find an alternative to single use reduces the risk of investing in new reuse/ refill systems which is not without lucrative market opportunities[26].

Like many policy areas, methods and measures are dependent and overlapping. Concurring measures on limiting incineration, reducing the contamination of plastic waste so intra-EU waste trade has better quality recyclate, ensuring eco-design and being wary of the widespread uptake of chemical recycling[27] and biodegradable/ compostable plastics would facilitate success.

Crucially, it is important to note, that neither the methods nor logic outlined above is novel. Bans are common policy measures to heighten the development of a commodity[28] or used to ensure environmental protection[29]. Europe is fully aware of its waste problem and currently has the opportunity to heighten responsible management.[30] In fact, it has already enacted a partial plastic waste trade ban exceeding current international regulations – having banned the export of unsorted plastic waste to non-OECD countries at the beginning of 2021[31].

It must also be noted that a European plastic waste ban would not be occurring in isolation. A number of countries who have historically been receiving this plastic waste have in turn placed import bans themselves as they acknowledge the damage these shipments bring[32]. This was kick-started in 2018 when China[33], as the principle importer of other countries’ plastic waste, put in place an importing ban leaving Europe scrambling to find other destinations for these shipments. The most recent country to place restrictions being Turkey[34].   

The ban of extra-EU plastic waste is simply Europe taking an additional step, getting us closer to the tipping point from single-use plastic to reuse existence. 

[1] https://www.breakfreefromplastic.org/the-plastic-waste-trade-manifesto/

[2] https://eia-international.org/report/the-uks-trade-in-plastic-waste/

[3] https://www.greenpeace.org.uk/resources/trashed-plastic-report/

[4] https://www.greenpeace.de/zugemuellt

[5] https://www.greenpeace.org/international/press-release/47759/investigation-finds-plastic-from-the-uk-and-germany-illegally-dumped-in-turkey/

[6] https://www.oecd.org/env/country-reviews/Highlights-Turkey-2019-ENGLISH-WEB.pdf

[7] https://rethinkplasticalliance.eu/wp-content/uploads/2021/01/rpa_waste_shipment_regulation_recommendations.pdf

[8] https://wastetradestories.org/

[9] Recycling is necessary but should not be the primary objective, and subsequently drastically enhancing Europe’s recycling ability is a false solution. Plastic can only be recycled a very few number of times (sometimes only once or twice – recyclability rate/ downgrading ultimately depends on plastic type, level of contamination, the nature of the product it is recycled into). Regardless. Polymer breakdown is countered by mixing with virgin plastics. Source: https://www.foodpackagingforum.org/fpf-2016/wp-content/uploads/2015/11/FPF_Dossier08_Plastic-recycling.pdf

[10] https://www.europarl.europa.eu/news/en/headlines/society/20181212STO21610/plastic-waste-and-recycling-in-the-eu-facts-and-figures

[11] https://www.eca.europa.eu/Lists/ECADocuments/RW20_04/RW_Plastic_waste_EN.pdf

[12] https://www.eca.europa.eu/Lists/ECADocuments/RW20_04/RW_Plastic_waste_EN.pdf

[13] https://www.europarl.europa.eu/news/en/headlines/society/20181212STO21610/plastic-waste-and-recycling-in-the-eu-facts-and-figures

[14] https://www.eea.europa.eu/publications/the-plastic-waste-trade-in

[15] https://www.europarl.europa.eu/news/en/headlines/society/20181212STO21610/plastic-waste-and-recycling-in-the-eu-facts-and-figures

[16] “Half of the plastic collected for recycling is exported to be treated in countries outside the EU. Reasons for the exportation include the lack of capacity, technology or financial resources to treat the waste locally. Previously, a significant share of the exported plastic waste was shipped to China, but with the country’s recent ban on plastic waste imports, it is increasingly urgent to find other solutions.” – European Parliament. Source: https://www.europarl.europa.eu/news/en/headlines/society/20181212STO21610/plastic-waste-and-recycling-in-the-eu-facts-and-figures

[17] “EU operators must receive documentation attesting that the treatment (including recycling) of plastic packaging waste in a third country is done under broadly equivalent standards to those in the EU. Nevertheless, the European Environment Agency notes that treatment in non-EU countries often causes higher environmental pressure in terms of pollution, CO2 emissions and plastic leakage into the environment, than treatment or recycling in the EU. Verification of compliance with EU plastic waste treatment standards in third countries is often insufficient to ensure respect of EU standards. Member State national authorities have no control powers in third countries and extended producer responsibility organisations, which are responsible for plastic packaging waste management, rarely perform on-the-spot checks. This translates into a low assurance relating to recycling outside the EU and significant risk of illegal activities”. Source: https://www.eca.europa.eu/Lists/ECADocuments/RW20_04/RW_Plastic_waste_EN.pdf

[18] Labour rights, poor working conditions, toxicity and leaching through recycling, leakage, residuals, burning dumping and landfill, chemical and microplastic pollution, exacerbating social inequalities to name a few.

[19] https://www.plasticsoupfoundation.org/en/2020/10/high-risk-that-europe-will-fail-to-meet-its-recycling-targets/

[20] https://www.plasticsoupfoundation.org/en/2020/10/high-risk-that-europe-will-fail-to-meet-its-recycling-targets/

[21] Recent examples including transhipments via the Netherlands (source: https://www.endsreport.com/article/1687089/exclusive-ea-investigates-illegal-import-plastic-waste-netherlands-industry-questions-recycling-figures) or illegal shipments from Italy to Tunisia (source: https://zerowasteeurope.eu/2021/05/waste-trade-italy-tunisia/#:~:text=In%202020%2C%20Italian%20company%20Sviluppo,with%20little%20chance%20for%20recycling.)

[22] https://op.europa.eu/en/publication-detail/-/publication/ab3534a2-87a0-11eb-ac4c-01aa75ed71a1/language-en

[23] https://op.europa.eu/en/publication-detail/-/publication/ab3534a2-87a0-11eb-ac4c-01aa75ed71a1/language-en

[24] In addition to effective monitoring, enforcement and adequate penalty.

[25] https://resource.co/article/european-commission-warns-incineration-could-hamper-circular-economy-11632

[26] https://www.greenpeace.org/usa/wp-content/uploads/2019/11/Blog-3_the-path-towards-new-product-delivery-models.pdf

[27] https://www.eunomia.co.uk/reports-tools/final-report-chemical-recycling-state-of-play/

[28] https://unctad.org/system/files/non-official-document/suc2017d8_en.pdf

[29] https://www.businessinsider.com/environmental-rules-laws-protections-around-the-world-2019-4?r=US&IR=T#the-european-union-has-committed-to-banning-pesticides-that-are-dangerous-to-bees-4 and https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/article/ocean-plastic-pollution-solutions

[30] Currently Europe is revising a host of waste legislation, including the Batteries Regulation, Waste Framework Directive, RoHS Directive, WEEE Directive, ELV Directive, Packaging and Packaging Waste Directive, Waste Shipment Regulation, POPs Regulation (waste annexes)

[31] https://ec.europa.eu/environment/news/plastic-waste-shipments-new-eu-rules-importing-and-exporting-plastic-waste-2020-12-22_en

[32] Bangladesh, Malaysia, Vietnam, Hong Kong, South Korea for instance all have or are looking at restricting imports.

[33] https://advances.sciencemag.org/content/4/6/eaat0131

[34] Ban on HDPE, LDPE imports May 2021 (Source: https://www.resmigazete.gov.tr/eskiler/2021/05/20210518-10.htm) and change of import rules in March 2021 and December 2020 (Source: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1aBExN7txopbWeEQbt9KXz05yWaTkRnNIZwDTM1r5wj0/edit and https://docs.google.com/document/d/19_WM0XYORz_5qavLgdflomo8ZErnXn6yFCCVZITxcf4/edit)

The EU Climate Agenda’s major oversight: the link between the petrochemical industry and plastic production

By Natasha Naayem

In our series of virtual panels on Writing the New Story of Plastic, we spoke of the fact that solutions to our plastic crisis have focused for too long on managing end-of-life — where our plastics end up and how we dispose of them once they’re considered waste — and the importance of considering the entire lifecycle of plastic. A significant contributor to our climate crisis and plastic pollution crisis is the very beginning of this lifecycle: the upstream production of plastic. 

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Plastics are petrol 

The creation of plastic begins with the extraction and processing of fossil fuels, practices responsible for significant greenhouse gas emissions including methane, whose global warming potential is at least 86 times that of CO2 over a 20-year period. While over 99% of plastics are produced from chemicals derived from fossil fuels, the association between fossil fuel extraction and plastic production has slipped from public attention, in large part because the climate impacts of greenhouse gas emissions are more difficult to grasp and less visceral than images of plastic litter flooding our oceans and killing marine wildlife. Yet not only does virtually all plastic come from fossil fuels, the petrochemical industry and the plastics industry are vertically integrated, meaning their prosperity relies on each other. This relationship describes a plastic industrial complex that has flown under the radar of EU policy for too long. 

Today, plastics account for 60% of oil demand. As the world relies less on oil and gas and prices for these materials plummet, the petrochemical industry—the largest consumer of oil and gas globally—is hedging its bets on plastics, with plans to double production capacity in the next 20 years. Yet public pressure on plastics is unlikely to yield the kind of demand to match the industry’s intended supply. In addition to the ecological problem of the upstream of plastic production, this gap has the potential to create an even greater economic problem than the one we already face—resulting from the crucial blind spot EU policy and legislation has on this sector, despite the EU’s plan to decarbonise its economy through policy like the European Green Deal.

An industry polluting with impunity 

As things stand, plastics impose a massive untaxed externality on society. “Externalities are a real cost, and people pay for them with their lives and with their livelihoods,” says panelist Kingsmill Bond, Energy Strategist at Carbon Tracker. The problem is that the ones paying these costs are not the ones pocketing the cash. Carbon Tracker’s recent report reveals that plastics cost taxpayers 1,000 USD per tonne produced, which amounts to 350 billion dollars of taxpayer money a year. While the principle that polluters should pay these externalities is present in European law, this principle is far from respected, particularly when it comes to industrial decarbonisation. Industries like the petrochemical industry have not reduced their emissions at all since 2012, despite the EU’s climate goals and our ongoing climate crisis.

Even with the EU Emissions Trading System (ETS) in place, the EU’s key tool for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, more than 90% of all the carbon pollution from these sectors has no price tag. The massive handout of free emissions allowances under the ETS—which represents 6.3 billion tons of CO2 over the next ten years—is “a hidden scandal of European climate policy making,” says panelist Sam Van Den Plas of Carbon Market Watch. It requires immediate attention. This “free” handout of carbon emissions represents 165 billion euros over the next ten years, a cost that will fall to European citizens instead of the industries who profit as a result of their production.

Solutions and EU policy

Internalising these externalities—making producers pay for the cost of their pollution—seems like a simple enough solution. Yet the reason the petrochemical industry has gotten away with such shocking impunity is because they’ve incorrectly convinced policy makers that putting a carbon price on their pollution will drive industry outside of Europe and only further pollute elsewhere. Another straight-forward seeming solution is to curtail the demand for plastics, which will curtail the demand for oil and phase out its extraction and processing. While our society is waking up to the negative effects of plastics, and industries across the board are turning away from them in their supply chain, the plastic industrial complex is wilfully blind to this trajectory. With plans to flood the market in oversupply, the discrepancy between their planned and likely growth is projected to create 400 billion dollars in stranded assets. If the EU doesn’t wake up to the flaws in their legislation and the hidden CO2 costs of plastics stemming from upstream production, there is a real risk that public funding will go towards saving this industry rather than towards implementing sound strategies. 

With the Green Deal, the goal of Carbon Neutrality and the increase of emissions target to at least 55% reduction by 2030, the European Commission is taking steps in the right direction, but these are nowhere near sufficient. Today, the EU has many good strategies in place, but these strategies have yet to be enacted through equally good legislation. For panelist Martin Hojsik, member of the European Parliament at Group Renew Europe, the solution is in a circular economy: “We need to create an environment that prohibits industries from going into linear systems and puts investments towards creating circular systems.” All plastics should be part of a closed loop system, which would avoid the production of virgin plastics and the creation of waste that ends up in landfill and incinerators. Creating these kinds of new capacities for plastic reduction relies on public money, which is why there is currently a big push to use COVID-19 recovery funds towards these kinds of initiatives. 

Carbon pricing and a system like the ETS are no silver bullets to our climate and pollution crisis. In addition to carving out a path towards a circular economy, the EU needs multiple instruments working in unison towards this goal. Instruments such as the Industrial Emissions Directive, the Circular Economy Agenda, the Methane Strategy, and the Carbon Border Adjustment have the potential to be harmonised towards the creation of a climate neutral economy, in which all free emission allowances are phased out, and pollution from plastics is tackled from both ends of the spectrum.