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Over 30% of all plastic exported from Europe may not be recycled, according to Irish study

The work was carried out by researchers from NUIG and University of Limerick.

Image: Shutterstock/Larina Marina

A NEW STUDY from Irish researchers suggests that nearly a third of plastic exported from Europe isn’t recycled. 

The research, carried out by staff from NUI Galway and the University of Limerick, quantified for the first time the amount of plastic from European countries that ends up in oceans. 

With 46% of European separated plastic exported from the country of origin, a large share of all the plastic used on the continent is transported to countries in south-east Asia for waste management. 

The study quantifies something that has long been a concern for environmentalists – that much of the waste exported isn’t recycled at all. 

George Bishop, the lead author of the study, said that the work indicates “an important and previously undocumented pathway of plastic debris entering the oceans, which will have considerable environmental and social impacts on marine ecosystems and coastal communities”.

Dr David Styles, a lecturer at the University of Limerick, said: “Given that such a large share of waste destined for recycling is exported, with poor downstream traceability, this study suggests that ‘true’ recycling rates may deviate significantly from rates reported by municipalities and countries where the waste originates.”

“In fact, our study found that up to 31% of the exported plastic wasn’t actually recycled at all,” he said. 

The research, published in the scientific journal Environment International, looked at the best case, average and worst-case scenarios of the amount of exported recycling that ends up in the ocean. 

The average figure for Ireland in 2017 is 3.15%. The comparable figure for the UK is 5.12%. 

The study estimated that between 1-7% of all exported European polyethylene – one of the most common types of plastic – ended up in the ocean. 

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“Our study highlights the lack of available data on plastic waste,” said Professor of New Energy Technologies at NUIG, Piet Lens. 

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