Recycling – secondary material price indicator

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Data from September 2020

Planned article update: October 2021

Highlights

EU exports of waste material to China for recycling has fallen sharply since January 2018, due to an import ban; exports of waste paper and plastic waste are both heavily affected.

China’s ban on importing plastic waste from 2018 has led to a sharp fall in EU export prices for plastic waste; by 2019, the extra-EU export price had fallen to 246 EUR/tonne.

Since the beginning of 2018, countries which received the largest amounts of EU waste paper and plastic waste for recycling have changed significantly.

Export of plastic waste for recycling from the EU to receiving countries, 2016 to June 2020
Source: Eurostat COMEXT

This article presents indicators on the volume and price of recyclables in the European Union (EU). The purpose is to provide relevant data and to give a broader overview of the market for secondary materials. 'Secondary materials' are waste materials collected for recycling and recycled materials that can be used in manufacturing processes, either instead of or alongside ‘virgin’ raw materials.

These indicators consider the average monthly volume of trade in such secondary materials (thousand tonnes or million tonnes) and their average monthly prices (EUR/tonne). The analysis is based on international trade in goods statistics and monitors both trade between EU Member States (intra-EU) and between EU Member States and countries outside the EU (extra-EU), respectively. The price indicator is presented in a way similar to other market-price related indicators, such as energy import prices.

In contrast to the established markets for steel and aluminium scrap, observation of markets for waste from materials originally used for consumer-related packaging (such as glass, paper and paperboard and plastic) is less developed. Therefore, this analysis focuses on these materials. These indicators are relevant to stakeholders concerned with long-term performance of secondary-material markets, as well as to policy makers developing recycling strategies in the Circular Economy. Both elements, trade volumes and prices, are shown within the same graphs in order to highlight current trends and volatility.

Full article

General overview

The data for glass, paper and board, and plastic show that the prices of recyclables have varied significantly over time. The most notable change over the last decades was a sharp reduction in secondary material prices for paper and board, and plastic during the financial crisis of 2008/2009. However, average annual figures for trade within the European Union (EU) suggest that the markets for most secondary materials were not substantially affected.

The data also show that, for materials which are often exported out of the EU for recycling, the price recovered after the sharp drop seen throughout 2008. Extra-EU trade volumes in plastic, for example, dropped significantly for a few months in 2008/2009, but bounced back to levels higher than before 2008. The data also suggests that, since the beginning of 2018, the countries receiving waste materials for recycling from the EU changed significantly.

The following sub-sections present the price and trade volumes for glass, paper and board and plastic. The data and figures are updated regularly on the Eurostat dedicated website on waste statistics.

Price and trade volumes

Glass

Annual averages of monthly prices and volumes for waste glass from 2004 to 2019 (the darker lines which remain constant over each year) are presented in Figure 1. From 2015 to June 2020, monthly data are also displayed (the lighter lines), highlighting the fluctuations in the price and volume data respectively.

Figure 1: Price indicator and trade volume for waste glass, EU-27, 2004 to June 2020
Source: Eurostat COMEXT

EU trade in glass waste (dark blue line – annual average of monthly volumes) shows an increase from an average of around 144 000 tonnes/month in 2004 to 242 000 tonnes/month in 2018, before falling to an annual average of 225 000 tonnes/month in 2019. The monthly trade data (light blue line) demonstrates the high fluctuation. The highest trading volume was observed in October 2018 with 285 000 tonnes, with another peak in October 2015 at around 269 000 tonnes. Detailed data (not displayed in Figure 1) show that the cross-border trade volume is dominated by intra-EU trade of glass material for recycling. Extra-EU export trade is minor for glass (4 % of exported volume).

The price development of glass waste is shown by the darker green line for annual average prices (as an average of the monthly prices) and by the lighter green line for monthly prices. In the period from January 2015 to June 2020, peaks were reached in March 2016 (57 EUR/tonne) and February 2015 (58 EUR/tonne) but the highest monthly price was observed in April 2019 at 59 EUR/tonne. After that, monthly prices stabilised at 49-54 EUR/tonne for the rest of 2019 (the annual average for 2019 was approximately 52.3 EUR/tonne). In 2020, monthly prices rose to almost 57 EUR/tonne in May 2020 before falling to 52 EUR/tonne in June 2020.

Paper and board

For both series (price and volume), annual averages of monthly prices and volumes for waste paper and board are shown from 2004 to 2019 (Figure 2). From 2015 to June 2020, the data is also displayed on a monthly basis to highlight fluctuations in the data (lighter coloured lines).

Figure 2: Price indicator and trade volume for paper and paperboard waste, EU-27, 2004 to June 2020
Source: Eurostat COMEXT

The traded volume (darker blue line) increased steadily from 2004 to 2011. The highest average traded volume was recorded in 2011 with 1.8 million tonnes/month. The annual average of monthly trade has fluctuated between 1.6 and 1.8 million tonnes/month in the years since. The monthly volume (lighter blue line) shows the fluctuations around the 12 months averages, with the monthly volume raising to a high of 2.2 million tonnes in October 2018.

The price data (green lines) do not follow the same trend as the data on traded volume. During the economic crisis the average price dropped from 121 EUR/tonne in 2008 to around 85 EUR/tonne in 2009. The price rebounded sharply through 2010 and 2011, peaking at 161 EUR/tonne in 2011, before trailing off in the following years. In 2017, the average price over the year climbed to a high of 159 EUR/tonne, but fell sharply to 135 EUR/tonne in 2018 and 114 EUR/tonne in 2019. Over the most recent period, there was a sharp decline in the monthly prices from around 145 EUR/tonne in October 2018, falling month-by-month to around 80 EUR/tonne in March 2020. A rebound was observed in the next three months, reaching 124 EUR/tonne in May 2020.

Plastic

For both price and volume of waste plastic, annual averages of monthly prices and volumes are given from 2004 to 2019 (Figure 3). From 2015 to June 2020, data are also displayed on a monthly basis, highlighting fluctuations in the data over the year (lighter lines).

Figure 3: Price indicator and trade volume for waste plastic, EU-27, 2004 to June 2020
Source: Eurostat COMEXT

The traded volume for waste plastic (blue line) grew continuously from 2004 to 2016, with the only interruption a slight decrease to 382 000 tonnes/month in 2013. The peak volume recorded in 2016 was an average of 447 000 tonnes/month. The traded volume has tailed off in subsequent years, falling to 375 000 tonnes/month in 2018 and 2019. Within a year, the volatility in the volumes traded is also significant. In 2019, spikes were observed in May (413 000 tonnes) and October (409 000 tonnes). However, this was well short of the 504 000 tonnes seen in April 2016. The lowest monthly volume in 2019 was recorded at the end of the year, in December, with 319 000 tonnes. After a rebound to 363 000 tonnes in February 2020, a sharp fall was observed in the next three months. The lowest monthly volumes were reached in May 2020, with 294 000 tonnes. In June 2020, a rebound was observed to 359 000 tonnes.

The price of plastic waste depends, on one hand, on the supply and demand of plastic waste material, and, on the other hand, on the crude oil price, which strongly influences the price of the virgin (primary) material. The indicator (green line) shows an increase in the price of plastic waste between 2004 and 2007 to levels of around 360 EUR/tonne. By 2013, the price had recovered to exceed the price level of 2007, with around 375 EUR/tonne. Since then, the price fell to 304 EUR/tonne on average in 2016 and have increased in the next two years, reaching 324 EUR/tonne in 2018. A new fall to 316 EUR/tonne was observed in 2019. Monthly prices continued to fluctuate over the year. In January 2020 the price stood at 308 EUR/tonne and since March 2020, the monthly price decreased steadily to reach 255 EUR/tonne in June 2020.

Development of prices for low and high quality secondary materials — paper

For paper and plastic, more than one international trade in goods statistics code is used for the calculation of the price indicator. The different codes describe secondary materials, which may include industrial residues of high quality or separately collected waste. Figure 4 illustrates the difference in price and the corresponding development over time. As an example, the trade positions of paper waste with the highest (code 47072000) and lowest (code 47079010) price were chosen.

Figure 4: Price development for low and high quality waste paper, EU-27, 2004 to June 2020
Source: Eurostat COMEXT

Since June 2019, prices for low and high quality waste paper regularly fell each month, with few exceptions, to reach a low point in February 2020 for high quality, with 164 EUR/tonne and in March 2020 for low quality, with 56 EUR/tonne.

The difference in price between the lowest and highest quality of waste paper has remained fairly constant, with the prices for the two qualities developing roughly in parallel. The observation of trade volumes provides a similar picture. Therefore, it is reasonable to calculate only one price indicator for paper.

Price indicator and trade flows

Trends in material prices and trade flows can give some additional information about the recycling economy.

Glass

Glass is a heavy and low-cost material. A consequence is that transport costs constitute a considerable share of the total costs when trading in waste glass. Hence, the trade volume is low in comparison with the overall recycling volume. In addition, most trade takes place between neighbouring countries, limiting the transport distances and transport costs, thus extra-EU export volumes are also low.

For paper and plastic, the data show a more complex picture.

Paper

Figure 5 shows the EU trade volume of paper waste according to trade flows. For paper waste, intra-EU trade increased from 9 million tonnes in 2004 to 12 million tonnes in 2011. In the following years, intra-EU trade volume fell to 11 million tonnes per year in the period 2013-2015. Then, it has stabilised at around 12 million tonnes per year in the period 2016-2018. In 2019, intra-EU trade volume fell back to 11 million tonnes.

Extra-EU import volumes for paper waste are relatively small and stable. By contrast, extra-EU exports grew strongly from just under 5 million tonnes/year in 2004 to close to 10 million tonnes/year in 2009. In the following years, extra-EU exports dropped to a level of between 6 and 8 million tonnes/year in the period 2010-2018. However, in 2019 the volume of paper waste exported to countries outside the EU fell below 6 million tonnes.

Figure 5: Trade volume of waste paper, by trade flows, EU-27, 2004-2019
Source: Eurostat COMEXT

The price indicator for paper waste in the EU, by trade flow, is shown in Figure 6. The prices of all three categories show similar trends. Due to the inclusion of transport costs, import prices tend to be higher than export prices.

Figure 6: Price indicator of waste paper, by trade flows, EU-27, 2004-2019
Source: Eurostat COMEXT

Plastic

The developments of the trade flows for plastic waste is shown in Figure 7. The overall trend looks similar to that seen for paper waste in Figure 5.

Extra-EU imports of plastic waste amounted to approximately 179 000 tonnes in 2004 and had risen to 730 000 tonnes by 2019. From 2009 to 2010, the volumes imported from outside the EU almost doubled, reaching 487 000 tonnes in 2010. A steep year-on-year increase was also observed from 2014 (533 000 tonnes) to 2015 (685 000 tonnes). Intra-EU trade in plastic waste stood at approximately 786 000 tonnes in 2004 and had increased to more than 2.2 million tonnes by 2019. Extra-EU exports rose from 1.3 million tonnes in 2004 to around 2.7 million tonnes in 2009, more than doubling over that period. However, the exports of plastic waste fell sharply to 2.2 million tonnes in 2017 and continued this steep fall to 1.6 million in 2018. This reflected the decision of China to ban imports of plastic waste, among several categories of solid waste, from 1 January 2018. In 2019, extra-EU exports stabilised at 1.5 million tonnes.

Figure 7: Trade volume of plastic waste, by trade flows, EU-27, 2004-2019
Source: Eurostat COMEXT

The development of the specific price of plastic waste by trade flow is shown in Figure 8. The trend is quite different from that of paper. The higher price seen in the intra-EU trade of plastic waste suggests that the quality of this material was higher than that imported to or exported from the EU. The price slumped for all three trade flows in 2009 and 2010, in connection with the international financial and economic crisis, but recovered from 2011 on. The announcement of China’s decision to stop importing plastic waste and a number of other solid waste categories from the end of 2017 led to a sharp fall in extra-EU export prices in 2016. In 2018, the price of extra-EU exports fell to 254 EUR/tonne, falling below the price of extra-EU imports (282 EUR/tonne) for the first time. By 2019, the extra-EU export price had fallen to 246 EUR/tonne, almost equalling the bottom level seen in 2009 (240 EUR/tonne) at the height of the economic crisis.

Figure 8: Price indicator of plastic waste, by trade flows, EU-27, 2004-2019
Source: Eurostat COMEXT

Developments in international trade flows

Policy changes on both sides, by the exporting countries as well as by the receiving countries, can lead to significant changes in the flows of material destined for recycling.

China filed a notification with the World Trade Organisation (WTO) that it intended to ban trade of four classes and 24 kinds of solid waste by the end of 2017, including all plastic scrap, unsorted waste paper, certain metal recycling residues, textiles and all unsorted waste or scrap. This ban has also led to a large drop in prices for recyclable goods, such as mixed paper.

In January 2017, China received 607 000 tonnes of paper for recycling from the EU. A year later, in January 2018, this had fallen to 137 000 tonnes, a decrease of more than three quarters (-77 %). As shown in Figure 9, the flows have shifted significantly towards Vietnam, Thailand, India and Indonesia, among others.

Figure 9: Export of paper waste for recycling from the EU-27 to receiving countries, 2016 to June 2020
Source: Eurostat COMEXT

In January 2017, China received 143 000 tonnes and Hong Kong 64 000 tonnes of plastic material for recycling from the EU. In January 2018, China received only 7 000 tonnes and Hong Kong 12 000 tonnes. The falls in plastic waste volumes received from the EU were -95 % for China and -81 % for Hong Kong between these two reference months. As shown in Figure 10, the flows have shifted significantly, towards Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam, India, Indonesia, Turkey and other countries in particular in Asia.

Figure 10: Export of plastic waste for recycling from the EU to receiving countries, 2016 to June 2020
Source: Eurostat COMEXT

Conclusions

The presented trade figures allow valuable insights for the implementation of the European thematic strategies on resources and on waste prevention and recycling, including for the Circular Economy. Assessing the international trade in goods data with the same methodology by country of origin and destination would provide an even more detailed insight.

The European market has a big trade surplus and the intra-EU trade is developing well.

On 1 January 2018, China's import ban for certain waste material came into effect. As a result, EU exports have almost halved. The remaining exports have shifted to other countries.

Source data for tables and graphs

Data sources and availability

Eurostat’s International trade in goods statistics is the data source for the presented indicators. The following paragraphs detail the international trade in goods statistics codes considered for the different waste categories.

Glass waste

Glass waste is reported in international trade in goods statistics under one code: 70010010 (see Table 1). Please take note that the code ’glass cullets’ also contains some industrial material.

Table 1: Codes in international trade in goods statistics for glass waste

Paper waste

Paper waste is reported in international trade in goods statistics under six codes (see Table 2). It reports three fractions of mostly industrial waste (47071000, 47072000, 47073090) and three fractions covering waste paper collected and sorted. As all fractions are covered by the Waste Statistics Regulation, we take all six codes into account for the indicator.

Table 2: Codes in international trade in goods statistics for paper waste

Plastic waste

Plastic waste is reported in international trade in goods statistics under nine codes from 2000-2003, under six codes from 2004-2009 and five codes from 2010 onwards (see Table 3 and 4). In 2004, the nomenclature changed and some codes were combined. In 2010, two codes were merged to one new code. Table 3 shows the years in which data is reported under which code. Numbers 5 and 7 in the table are combined to the new position #6. Additionally, the positions #10, #11 and #12 are combined to the new position #9. In 2010, the codes #6 and #9 are merged to #8.

Table 3: Changes in nomenclature for plastic waste


Table 4: Codes in international trade in goods statistics for plastic waste

Context

The price indicator sums up all value (in EUR) and volume (in tonnes) of all relevant international trade in goods codes. Value divided by volume gives the specific price indicator (in EUR/tonne)

Formula price indicator.PNG

Value and volume is extracted from international trade in goods statistics as intra-EU and extra-EU trade for both, import and export. The price indicator is shown as monthly data or yearly average data.

The total volume of the traded waste materials (import plus export) is shown as an additional indicator. This indicator (tonnes/month) shows the market activity and covers intra- and extra trade in the EU. This indicator is shown as monthly data (tonnes/month) for a month or the yearly average (12 times tonnes/month).

International trade in goods statistics are published monthly, with a delay of approximately 2.5 months.

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