OECD members still account for most plastic waste trade

Members of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and development (OECD) continue to make up a significant share of global trade in plastic scrap and waste, according to a new report by the organization.

A new 20-page report examines how trade in plastic waste and scrap in 2020 and early 2021 has been affected by factors such as the Covid-19 crisis, supply chain disruptions and new Basel Convention controls on trans-boundary shipments since the start of 2021.

Source: Monitoring trade in plastic waste and scrap, OECD Environment Working Paper No. 194.

The report finds that the annual export weight of plastic scrap and waste fell by roughly 46% over the past three years, from around 12.3 million metric tonnes (Mt) in 2017 to 6.4 Mt in 2020, with a notable drop in exports to China and Hong Kong.

While exports by OECD countries continued to decrease and imports slightly increased, OECD countries still accounted for 89% of global reported exports by weight in 2020 and 67% of reported imports.

Most OECD countries are net exporters of plastic waste, but the trade surplus continues to shrink along with the overall volume of trade.

Other plastic polymers not-elsewhere-classified make up the largest share of exported plastic waste and scrap. This category includes polymers that are marketable as feedstock for recycling, including polyethylene terephthalate (PET) and polypropylene (PP), but which have not yet been assigned a specific HS categorisation. The largest single polymer type of
plastic waste and scrap exported by OECD Member Countries are Ethylene polymers, comprising polymers such as PE, HDPE, and LDPE.

In 2020, the four largest OECD exporters were Germany, Japan, the United States and the United Kingdom, while the four largest OECD importers were Turkey, the Netherlands, the US and Germany. Some of these imports and (re-)exports may be attributed to transshipments, where a country serves as a transit station before waste is shipped to its final destination. 

The majority of trade in plastic waste in 2020 was regional rather than inter-continental. North America stands out, with about half of its export weight traded inter-continentally, predominantly to Asia.

Relatively lower transport costs for regional trade, as well as disruptions to supply chains and international shipping, help to explain in part why regional trade was more prevalent than inter-regional trade in 2020.