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Plastic waste: the need to act quickly before we are submerged

Isabelle Méjean
Isabelle Méjean
Head of economics department at the Institut Polytechnique de Paris and Best young French economist 2020
julien martin
Julien Martin
professor in the Department of Economics at the University of Quebec in Montréal (ESG-UQAM)

[This arti­cle is a sum­ma­ry of a note pub­lished by the Insti­tut des poli­tiques publiques. To read the orig­i­nal arti­cle click here]

In Jan­u­ary 2021, the Euro­pean Com­mis­sion banned the export of dif­fi­cult-to-recy­cle waste to non-OECD coun­tries. We have exam­ined the poten­tial impact of this new mea­sure for French exporters by com­par­ing it to China’s abrupt deci­sion to ban plas­tic waste imports in 2017.

Plastic as a raw material

An esti­mat­ed 6.3 bil­lion tons of plas­tic waste were pro­duced world­wide between 1950 and 20151. Only about 20% of this waste was recy­cled or incin­er­at­ed. The rest has accu­mu­lat­ed in land­fills or in the envi­ron­ment in gen­er­al2

Plas­tic waste is now a trad­ed com­mod­i­ty sold by the tonne. In the­o­ry, devel­op­ing coun­tries (with low labour costs) should be able to prof­it eco­nom­i­cal­ly by import­ing this waste. In prac­tice, how­ev­er, most do not have the infra­struc­tures to treat the waste cor­rect­ly. It there­fore just ends up on rub­bish heaps. 

Despite the Basel Con­ven­tion on the Con­trol of Trans­bound­ary Move­ments of Haz­ardous Wastes and their Dis­pos­al, which was signed in 1989 to pro­tect these coun­tries from “envi­ron­men­tal dump­ing”, exports of haz­ardous waste have remained high. To counter this phe­nom­e­non, some emerg­ing coun­tries have adopt­ed uni­lat­er­al mea­sures. The most rad­i­cal of these was the 2017 ban by Chi­na, who no longer want­ed to be the “world’s rub­bish-bin” (fig­ure 1).

Until 2018, Chi­na was the world’s largest importer of plas­tic waste.

China’s deci­sion not only changed the sta­tus quo of glob­al plas­tic waste man­age­ment, it also dra­mat­i­cal­ly revealed many of its short­com­ings on a nation­al lev­el. So much so that the Euro­pean Com­mis­sion, for its part, adopt­ed new reg­u­la­tions from 1 Jan­u­ary 2021, both for with­in the EU and between the EU and the rest of the world. Except for clean waste sent for recy­cling, the export of plas­tic waste from the EU to non-OECD coun­tries (that is, less indus­tri­alised nations) is now pro­hib­it­ed. Exports to OECD coun­tries and with­in the EU are also more strict­ly regulated.

China’s ban as a comparison

France export­ed 4 mil­lion met­ric tonnes (Mt) of plas­tic waste between 2010 and 2019. About a quar­ter of this waste was shipped most­ly to Chi­na and the rest sent main­ly to oth­er EU coun­tries. To bet­ter pre­dict the impact of the new reg­u­la­to­ry changes intro­duced by the Euro­pean Com­mis­sion, we analysed how French exporters had pre­vi­ous­ly adapt­ed to the Chi­nese ban – in terms of quan­ti­ties export­ed, des­ti­na­tions and prices.

We used a data set pro­vid­ed by French cus­toms. This infor­ma­tion does not, how­ev­er, take into account ille­gal trade, which is dif­fi­cult to esti­mate. We com­pared how the behav­iour of two groups of com­pa­nies changed fol­low­ing the 2017 deci­sion. The first, or “treat­ed”, group includ­ed firms that were active­ly export­ing to Chi­na in 2016 or 2017. The sec­ond, or “con­trol”, group was not export­ing to these destinations.

What does the study show?

A col­lapse in glob­al trade in plas­tic waste, which fell by a half by 2018. It also high­lights that half of the waste pre­vi­ous­ly export­ed to Chi­na has been real­lo­cat­ed to oth­er coun­tries (fig­ure 2). The prob­lem has thus large­ly been displaced.

The impact of the Chi­nese ban on French plas­tic waste exports to China.

France, for its part, increased exports to Malaysia and oth­er East Asian coun­tries, but not to the EU, imply­ing that this lat­ter mar­ket was already sat­u­rat­ed. Over­all, exports fell by 30,000 tonnes in 2018, sug­gest­ing that more plas­tic waste had to be processed domes­ti­cal­ly. Treat­ed French com­pa­nies were also 15% more like­ly to export to the EU in 2018 and 22% more like­ly in 2019. The fig­ures are high­er for exports to out­side the EU with an addi­tion­al increase of 39% in 2018 and 37% in 2019.

We did find, how­ev­er, that the sit­u­a­tion was very dif­fer­ent for the two sets of des­ti­na­tions: affect­ed com­pa­nies react­ed imme­di­ate­ly by redi­rect­ing their exports to oth­er coun­tries out­side the EU, but they also start­ed to redi­rect these exports to Euro­pean part­ner coun­tries from 2018 onwards – and increas­ing­ly so in 2019. A longer time peri­od would be need­ed to con­firm these trends.

The quality of French exports and prices

The Chi­nese ban also affect­ed the type of plas­tic waste export­ed by France to oth­er coun­tries. The data shows that Malaysia has replaced Chi­na for when it comes to low qual­i­ty waste, which is sold on aver­age 60% cheap­er than the aver­age price of exports to the Nether­lands (an impor­tant trad­ing part­ner for France) for the same prod­uct categories.

What is more, the dif­fer­ent Euro­pean mem­ber states seem to have reor­gan­ised their plas­tic waste man­age­ment and a form of spe­cial­i­sa­tion has appeared. Bel­gium has become a plat­form, for exam­ple, while Ger­many and the Nether­lands import the cheap­est waste and burn it to pro­duce ener­gy from recy­cled mate­ri­als. Cer­tain coun­tries, such as Italy and Spain, are focus­ing on pro­cess­ing high­er qual­i­ty, more expen­sive waste.


The way in which the 2017 Chi­nese ban affect­ed French exports both with­in the Euro­pean mar­ket and to the rest of the world can pro­vide valu­able infor­ma­tion on how France will adapt to the new 2021 EU reg­u­la­tions. One impor­tant con­se­quence is that much of the country’s dif­fi­cult-to-recy­cle waste will now have to be treat­ed at home. In the short term, this will require mas­sive invest­ment in mod­ern and effi­cient sort­ing and recy­cling infra­struc­tures. Any delay in set­ting up these sys­tems could encour­age an increase in ille­gal trade in this lucra­tive sec­tor. This is some­thing that hap­pens in gen­er­al when poli­cies are tight­ened and state invest­ment is lacking. 

Our study pro­vides guide­lines for quick action by mak­ing use of ini­tia­tives such as the Green Pact for Europe, which aims to recy­cle 50% of the plas­tic waste gen­er­at­ed by the EU by 2030. Con­cert­ed efforts by mem­ber states could allow the trade in plas­tic waste to become a source of eco­nom­ic gain for Europe by 2030, while being ben­e­fi­cial for the environment.

Summary by Isabelle Dumé 


Isabelle Méjean

Isabelle Méjean

Head of economics department at the Institut Polytechnique de Paris and Best young French economist 2020

Isabelle Méjean is a professor at the Centre for Research in Economics and Statistics (CREST: a joint research unit of CNRS, ENSAE Paris, École Polytechnique - Institut Polytechnique de Paris, GENES). Head of the economics department at the Institut polytechnique de Paris, she is the winner of the prize for the best young economist of France 2020 (Le Cercle des économistes - Le Monde).

julien martin

Julien Martin

professor in the Department of Economics at the University of Quebec in Montréal (ESG-UQAM)

Julien Martin's research interests relate to international trade, urban economics and macroeconomics. A member of the Centre d’Etudes sur l’Intégration et la Mondialisation (CEIM), he holds the UQAM Strategic Research Chair on the local impact of multinational firms since 2019.

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