Europe takes a historic step in the fight against plastic pollution

February 2, 2023

Opinion by Thomas de Groote, Founder and CEO of River Cleanup


Europe turns off the plastic tap - Every year, millions of tons of plastic waste from Europe end up in countries outside the EU. There, the plastic ends up in landfills or is incinerated, a toxic process that releases toxins into nature. The European Parliament is now putting an end to this by voting for a historic ban on the export of plastic waste. From now on, EU countries will be obliged to take responsibility and process their own waste. A welcome step in the right direction, but the road is still long.


The European Parliament has just defined a clear framework for a more responsible, transparent, and better enforced waste export policy. Stricter rules on the export of plastic waste, should protect the environment and public health. With this export ban, Europe wants to encourage plastics to be used less, differently and better, and to build more recycling plants. A new, positive wind will soon blow outside the EU as well: waste processors in non-EU countries must now follow European standards as well. The next step? Also convincing the 27 member states to follow in the footsteps of 92.5% of their European MPs. To be continued, then, for sure.

Belgium, a real hub

The numbers don’t lie. According to the United Nations Comtrade1 database, EU countries exported just over 1 billion kg of plastic waste out of the EU in 2021, of which 65% via Germany (284 million kg), the Netherlands (235 million kg), and Belgium (134 million kg). Belgium mainly exports to Turkey (46.8%), Malaysia (20.3%), Vietnam (17.4%), Indonesia (12.8%), and India (4.2%).

Impact on people and nature

Waste colonialism is a harsh reality for many countries around the world. Developed countries often export their plastic waste to countries with limited recycling capacity, further impacting these communities. In many countries like Cameroon, Ghana, and Indonesia, plastics end up in nature by open waste burning, via (illegal) landfills, and reaching the oceans through rivers. But it doesn’t end there: plastics break down into microplastics and find their way back into our food chain.

Important first step

With the ban on the export of plastic waste, Europe is leading the way toward a more innovative and circular economy. A real victory for future generations. But caution is still in order. Some European countries and EU candidate countries, such as Albania, do not have the infrastructure and capacity to recycle their own plastic waste. We must ensure that they do not become Europe's dumping ground.

Together for a cleaner world

Is it doable for EU countries to treat their waste? Absolutely. A change is possible, provided recycling capacity within the EU increases, reuse is encouraged, and products are designed more sustainably. Furthermore, the historic halving of exports between 2017 (1.9 billion kg) and 2021 (1.0 billion kg) demonstrates the feasibility of ambitions.

Recycling is crucial, but it is not the silver bullet to our plastic problem. As consumers, as businesses, and as governments, we’ll need to make conscious choices to ban single-use plastics from our daily lives and make more efforts to collect plastic waste and recycle it properly.