In 2021, the export of waste from the European Union to other non-EU countries reached all-time highs, according to statistics from Eurostat, the European Union’s statistics agency. In total 33 million tonnes were exported, an increase of 77% since 2004.
This is mostly made up of metal, ferrous waste, which accounted for 19.5 million tonnes or 59% of total exports from the EU. Around two thirds of all metal waste from the EU is exported abroad.
Other significant waste exports include paper, cardboard, non-ferrous metals, textiles, minerals, plastics, rubber, wood, and organic matter.
The vast majority of this waste is shipped to developing countries across the world. Turkey is by far the largest recipient of Europe’s waste. In 2021, it received 14.7 million tonnes of Europe’s waste.
While most of this waste is supposed to be recycled, the exports are controversial because images posted last year revealed large piles of garbage piled-up in Turkish fields. Turkey enacted a short-lived ban on plastic waste imports from the EU as large quantities were found dumped along roadsides.
An additional 2.4 million tonnes of waste is shipped halfway across the world to India. The country is the largest recipient of Europe’s paper waste, receiving 1.2 million tonnes (26% of total paper waste), followed by Indonesia (22%), and Turkey (10%).
India famously struggles with mountains of trash that are produced domestically. 62 million tonnes of waste are produced by Indian cities every year, which often end up in large mountains picked over by around 500,000 “rag-pickers” who sift through waste piles for recyclable materials.
Several years ago, China banned imports of plastic waste, sending European waste management networks into a crisis. In 1992-2019, China took 45% of the world’s plastic waste. EU waste exports to China dropped from a peak of 10.1 million tonnes in 2009 to just 0,4 million tonnes in 2021.
In recent years, Pakistan has grown as a destination of waste over recent years. In 2004, the region imported 0.1 million tonnes of European waste. Now, it accepts 1.3 million tonnes.
The EU exports almost double the amount of waste as it imports. Nevertheless, in 2019, the EU imported 19.7 million tonnes of waste from abroad, an 11% increase since 2004.
Europe imported 5.5 million tonnes of ferrous metal waste, with almost a third (32%) coming from the United Kingdom. This is typically smelted down to be recycled. 2.4 million tonnes of paper were also imported from abroad, also mostly from the United Kingdom (42%).