International trade in recyclable products
Data extracted in October 2022
Planned article update: October 2023
The United Kingdom was the EU's largest partner for imports of recyclable paper, plastic and glass in 2021.
The EU exports more recyclable products than they import.
Extra-EU trade in recyclable products, 2021
This article provides a picture of the international trade in recyclable products of the European Union (EU) for three products: recyclable paper, recyclable plastic and recyclable glass. It compares these three groups among themselves and shows developments over time of both extra-EU imports and exports. Finally it shows the main partners for extra-EU imports and exports for each of the three products mentioned above.
The EU exports more recyclable products than they import
In 2021, the EU imported €458 million worth of recyclable paper, €229 million of recyclable plastic and €36 million of recyclable glass (see Figure 1). Exports of recyclable paper (€856 million) and recyclable plastic (€335 million) were much higher than imports. By contrast, exports of recyclable glass (€24 million) were lower than imports.
In terms of value, imports of recyclable paper into the EU in 2021 were 31 % higher than they were in 2010 (see Figure 2). Much larger increases occurred in recyclable plastic and glass, for which the value of imports increased by 231 % and 126 % respectively.
In terms of weight, imports of recyclable paper in 2021 were 1 % higher than in 2010. Much larger increases occurred in recyclable plastic and glass, for which the value of imports increased by 52 % and 85 % respectively (see Figure 3).
Exports of two of these three groups of recyclable products from the EU were lower, in value terms, in 2021 than they had been in 2010 (see Figure 4). The sharpest decrease was for recyclable plastic (down 56 %) and then paper (down 13 %), while glass exports increased by 27 %.
In terms of weight, exports of recyclable paper (-37 %) and plastic (-57 %) from the EU in 2021 were less than they had been in 2010 (see Figure 5). Exports of recyclable glass, however, had risen by 45 %.
Recyclable paper: United Kingdom largest import partner, India largest export partner
Four of the top-5 partners for extra-EU imports of recyclable paper were European countries (see Figure 6). The exception was the United States, from where just over one fifth (21 %) of extra-EU imports of recyclable paper came. Only the United Kingdom accounted for a higher share (40 %). The two largest partners for extra-EU exports of recyclable paper were India (27 %) and Indonesia (22 %) (see Figure 7).
Recyclable plastic: United Kingdom largest import partner, Türkiye largest export partner
Three of the top-5 partners for extra-EU imports of recyclable plastic were European countries, of which the United Kingdom (47 %) had by far the largest share (see Figure 8). Türkiye (26 %) was the largest partner for extra-EU exports of recyclable plastic but the United Kingdom (14 %), Indonesia and Malaysia (both 12 %) also had double digit shares (see Figure 9).
Recyclable glass: United Kingdom largest import and export partner
The United Kingdom was the largest partner for both extra-EU imports (49 %) and exports (48 %) of recyclable glass. Switzerland was the only other country with double digit shares both in imports (21 %) and exports (11 %), as shown in Figures 10 and 11.
Source data for tables and graphs
EU data is taken from Eurostat's COMEXT database. COMEXT is the reference database for international trade in goods. It provides access not only to both recent and historical data from the EU Member States but also to statistics of a significant number of third countries. International trade aggregated and detailed statistics disseminated via the Eurostat website are compiled from COMEXT data according to a monthly process.
Data are collected by the competent national authorities of the Member States and compiled according to a harmonised methodology established by EU regulations before transmission to Eurostat. For extra-EU trade, the statistical information is mainly provided by the traders on the basis of customs declarations.
EU data are compiled according to Community guidelines and may, therefore, differ from national data published by the Member States. Statistics on extra-EU trade are calculated as the sum of trade of each of the 27 EU Member States with countries outside the EU. In other words, the EU is considered as a single trading entity and trade flows are measured into and out of the area, but not within it.
The EU data reflect the political change in the EU composition. Therefore, the United Kingdom was considered as an extra-EU partner country for the EU. However, the United Kingdom was still part of the internal market until the end of the transitory period (end 2021), meaning that data on trade with the United Kingdom for reference periods till, then were still based on statistical concepts applicable to trade between the EU Member States. As a consequence, while imports from any other extra-EU trade partner are grouped by country of origin, the United Kingdom data reflect country of consignment. In practice this means that the goods imported by the EU from the United Kingdom were physically transported from the United Kingdom but part of these goods could have been of other origin than the United Kingdom. For this reason data on trade with the United Kingdom are not fully comparable with data on trade with other extra-EU trade partners.
According to the EU concepts and definitions, extra-EU trade statistics (trade between EU Member States and non-EU countries) do not record exchanges involving goods in transit, placed in a customs warehouse or given temporary admission (for trade fairs, temporary exhibitions, tests, etc.). This is known as ‘special trade’. The partner is the country of final destination of the goods for exports and the country of origin for imports.
Unit of measure
Trade values are expressed in millions or billions (109) of euros. They correspond to the statistical value, i.e. to the amount which would be invoiced in the event of sale or purchase at the national border of the reporting country. It is called a FOB value (free on board) for exports and a CIF value (cost, insurance, freight) for imports.
Product codes The products codes from the harmonized system for the products discussed in this article are:
- recyclable paper: 4707
- recyclable plastic: 3915
- recyclable glass: 70010010
Trade is an important indicator of Europe’s prosperity and place in the world. The bloc is deeply integrated into global markets both for the products it sources and the exports it sells. The EU trade policy is an important element of the external dimension of the ‘Europe 2021 strategy for smart, sustainable and inclusive growth’ and is one of the main pillars of the EU’s relations with the rest of the world.
Because the 27 EU Member States share a single market and a single external border, they also have a single trade policy. EU Member States speak and negotiate collectively, both in the World Trade Organization, where the rules of international trade are agreed and enforced, and with individual trading partners. This common policy enables them to speak with one voice in trade negotiations, maximising their impact in such negotiations. This is even more important in a globalised world in which economies tend to cluster together in regional groups.
The openness of the EU’s trade regime has meant that the EU is the biggest player on the global trading scene and remains a good region to do business with. Thanks to the ease of modern transport and communications, it is now easier to produce, buy and sell goods around the world which gives European companies of every size the potential to trade outside Europe.
Direct access to
- International trade in goods (t_ext_go), see:
- International trade in goods - long-term indicators (t_ext_go_lti)
- International trade in goods - short-term indicators (t_ext_go_sti)
- International trade in goods (ext_go), see:
- International trade in goods - aggregated data (ext_go_agg)
- International trade in goods - long-term indicators (ext_go_lti)
- International trade in goods - short-term indicators (ext_go_sti)
- International trade in goods - detailed data (detail)
- International trade in goods statistics - background
- International trade in goods (ESMS metadata file — ext_go_esms)
- User guide on European statistics on international trade in goods