The developed world’s recycled plastics are finding their way into countries in Southeast Asia that don’t have the capacity to deal with it, creating water contamination, crop death, illness, and the open burning of plastic waste, according to a report by GAIA.
According to the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA), since China’s 2018 waste import ban, waste that would have been exported into the country flooded into Malaysia, Vietnam, and Thailand. These countries then set up import restrictions, which meant this overflowed into Indonesia, India, and Turkey.
GAIA says this process will continue until decisive action is taken.
It says waste is piling up globally and domestically for all countries involved – even former exporters – as plastic waste exports
From 12.5 million tonnes in 2016 to 5.8 million tonnes in 2018 (available data from January to November 2018).
Kate Lin, a senior campaigner with Greenpeace East Asia – “Once one country regulates plastic waste imports, it floods into the next un-regulated destination. When that country regulates, the exports move to the next one.”
GAIA says plastic manufacturing is projected to rise, meaning this drop in exports in part means recyclable plastics will continue to stockpile or head for “improper” disposal at home – incineration.
But export of this waste doesn’t ensure proper disposal, according to GAIA. “Today, exports make their way into any country without adequate regulation to protect itself,” it says.
“North Sumengko, Indonesia, for example, turned into an international dumping ground almost overnight, and GAIA’s field investigation found waste piled two meters high, makeshift dumps, and open burning in the farming community.”
Beau Baconguis, regional plastics coordinator at GAIA Asia Pacific, said: “As wealthy nations dump their low-grade plastic trash onto country after country in the global south, the least the international community can do is safeguard a country’s right to know exactly what is being sent to their shores.
“However, ultimately, exporting countries need to deal with their plastic pollution problem at home instead of passing the burden onto other communities.”
To measure changes to the flow of recyclable plastic waste before and after China’s 2018 waste import ban, Greenpeace East Asia collated import-export data from the 21 top exporters — with USA, UK, Germany, and Japan at the top — and 21 top importers of plastics scraps.
Kate Lin, a senior campaigner with Greenpeace East Asia, said: “Once one country regulates plastic waste imports, it floods into the next un-regulated destination. When that country regulates, the exports move to the next one.
“It’s a predatory system, but it’s also increasingly inefficient. Each new iteration shows more and more plastic going off grid — where we can’t see what’s done with it — and that’s unacceptable.”
The Basel Convention will convene April 29 to May 10 in Switzerland to consider a proposal from Norway for greater transparency and accountability in the global trade of plastic waste.
The proposal says exporters of plastic waste should receive permission from destination countries in advance — a system known as “prior informed consent” that is already in place for other types of hazardous waste.
“Recycling systems can never keep up with plastic production, as only 9% of the plastics ever produced are recycled. The only solution to plastic pollution is producing less plastic.
“Heavy plastic users — mainly consumer goods companies like Nestlé and Unilever, but also supermarkets — need to reduce single-use plastics packaging and move towards refill and reuse system to get us out of this crisis,” said Lin.
Unilever has been contacted for comment.