New research from NUI Galway and the University of Limerick has for the first time quantified the volume of plastic from European countries (EU, UK, Switzerland and Norway) that contributes to ocean littering from exported recycling. While European countries have developed world-leading waste management infrastructure, 46% of European separated plastic waste is exported outside the country of origin. A large share of this plastic is transported thousands of kilometers to countries with poor waste management practices, largely located in Southeast Asia. Once in these countries, a large share of the waste is rejected from recycling streams into overstretched local waste management systems that have been found to contribute significantly to ocean littering. This new research, published in the scientific journal Environment International, estimated the best-case, average, and worst-case scenarios of ocean debris pathways from exported recycling in 2017. The results estimated a range between 32,115—180,558 tons, or 1—7% of all exported European polyethylene, which ended up in the ocean. Polyethylene is one of the most common types of plastic in Europe, and the results showed that countries such as the UK, Slovenia, and Italy are exporting a higher share of plastic outside of Europe and see a higher share of their recyclable plastic waste end up as ocean debris. Using detailed international trade data and data on waste management in destination countries, the study modeled the fate of all polyethylene exported for recycling from Europe, accounting for different fates ranging from successful conversion into recycled resins, or ending up as landfill, incineration, or ocean debris.

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