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Author: Lauren Weir
In a bid to make largely unrecyclable plastic waste more circular, high-income countries have been exporting theirs to other countries, even though they have no guarantees it will not be dumped, burned or displace recycling capacity. This trade harms both the environment and human health. High-income country export bans on plastic waste are in line with relevant international obligations and will remake globalisation for the better.
Plastic production has increased exponentially since the 1950s. Despite only having existed, at scale, for the equivalent of a single lifetime, the sheer ubiquity of production, design and chemical components means that toxic plastic pollution is everywhere. It is now found within every single environment and in a large percentage of fauna and fora – including in humans: plastics can be found in our breast milk, our placentas, our lungs, our blood and, most likely, our brains. Continued production levels pose a direct threat to planetary boundaries, driving petrochemical expansion and, as a consequence, climate change.
Of the 460 million tons of plastic we now produce every year, much of which is single-use, 77 per cent is categorised as waste each year and only ten per cent is recycled (OECD 2022, Minderoo 2023). Yet recycling, rather than reduction, repair or reuse, has been the primary focus to address poor design and the increase in plastic volumes. The response has therefore included domestic mandated recycling rates, recycled content targets, taxes – and the global plastic waste trade.
The plastic waste trade is underpinned by financial power dynamics. High-income countries invest in waste collection but not in adequate treatment infrastructure, instead exporting plastic elsewhere. This is not driven by the desire to attain the most environmentally sound outcome, but because it is economically convenient. For example, the current top exporters (and producers per capita) of plastic waste are the EU, the US, the UK and Japan. The top importers are located in Asia, especially South-East Asia, as well as in Turkey and, more recently, Latin America (Environmental Investigation Agency 2021).
But this process is causing irrevocable environmental and human health harm. This first became evident in the 1980s, when high-income countries exported hazardous waste, exploited the cheap disposal options in Eastern Europe and Africa.
Harms are not being adequately addressed by those perpetuating them
Revelations about the hazardous waste trade resulted in the 1989 adoption of the Basel Convention (the global agreement controlling how waste is traded). Even so, agreeing and implementing international law takes time. The subsequently adopted Ban Amendment in 1994, which prohibits the export of hazardous waste from high-income countries to others, only came into force in 2019 (Basel Convention 2021a). Acknowledging the nature of the problem, the Basel Convention sets out important objectives to follow – such as self-sufficiency and proximity – and allows countries to impose additional requirements to better protect human health and the environment (Basel Convention 2019).
Current Basel Convention obligations do not provide all countries with the necessary protections from the plastic waste trade, so several countries have been introducing additional requirements. This started with China, the largest recipient of the world’s exported plastic waste – receiving 73 per cent of it between 1992 and 2018 (Environmental Investigation Agency 2021). In 2018, it effectively prohibited imports, citing the protection of the environment and human health. High-income countries then found new destinations, which in turn put in place import bans or strict restrictions too. Between 2018 and 2021, these countries included Taiwan, India, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam and Turkey.
The Basel Convention then adopted plastic waste amendments in 2021 that required recipient country consent before exporting mixed and contaminated plastic waste (Basel Convention 2021b). Australia and the EU imposed further export obligations, somewhat reflecting receiving countries’ regulatory trends.
As a consequence, recorded plastic waste exports decreased. Peaking in 2014 globally at around 16 million tonnes, the top ten global exporters shipped 6.75 million tonnes in 2017 and a much lower 3.75 million tonnes in 2021 (Basel Action Network 2021). Yet this is still equivalent to exporting 1,933 shipping containers every day for an entire year. Continued loopholes and the harms from these exports remain acute.
Current recipient countries such as Malaysia, Indonesia and Turkey are still facing problems such as the dumping or burning of plastic waste imports, the contamination of food with toxins and dangerous recycling facility working conditions. This in turn impacts the health of local communities and those working in the industry, which include children and refugees. Even when imported plastic waste is sorted and “decontaminated”, the microplastic and chemical pollution stemming from the recycling process can cause harm.
The problems are exacerbated because the waste trade lacks transparency and can be easily exploited. Exporting countries are failing to undertake effective monitoring of their shipments. This creates a burgeoning and lucrative illegal trade, especially for plastics.
Even when plastic waste can be managed in an environmentally sound manner, recipient countries suffer from recycling capacity displacement. Plastic waste imports from high-income countries take up significant levels of domestic recycling capacity, providing fewer opportunities for them to recycle their own plastic waste (Environmental Investigation Agency 2023).
Moreover, when compared with other traded wastes, plastics pose unique issues. Unlike other major exported waste streams from high-income countries, plastic waste net exports are high. Plastic waste is also set to grow at a much higher rate (with a forecast tripling by 2060), yet has a much lower recycling rate. In addition, plastic is not infinitely recyclable and has the highest rate of recycling residuals and mismanagement. Indeed, shipments have as high a rate of illegality as certain internationally listed hazardous wastes, yet are not privy to similar levels of scrutiny or penalties if found to be illegal, despite also causing significant and long-standing harm.
In summary, high-income countries export plastic waste for convenience, not necessity. There are no guarantees that exported waste will not harm human health, be dumped, burnt or displace recycling capacity.
High-income countries need to take responsibility for their waste
In an echo of the Basel Convention, revelations over the extent of plastic pollution harm has resulted in another global agreement – the Global Plastics Treaty. This legally binding agreement is currently being negotiated by the UN member states and is due to be finalised by the end of 2024 [at time of writing negotiations were still ongoing]. It is hoped that the treaty will see countries agree to impose crucial plastic reduction measures, as well as restrictions on chemicals used in plastics. These international agreements are examples of how globalisation can be used to protect everyone from the externalities resulting from the economics driving free trade.
However, reduction measures will not necessarily result in lower volumes of waste exports from high-income countries. Current and potential future recipient countries remain alone, legislatively speaking, in trying to protect themselves. The introduction of bans on the export of plastic waste by high-income countries will help to address the issue. Such bans, which are in line with relevant international obligations, are entirely possible given these countries’ financial resources.
In a response to the exposure of the realities behind the global plastic waste trade, some major high-income country exporters, particularly the EU, are currently considering such a measure. We will therefore soon see whether the EU will ban the export of its plastic waste – and help to remake globalisation for the better.
Author: Lauren Weir is a Senior Campaigner working on the issue of plastic pollution at the Environmental Investigation Agency.
- Basel Action Network (2021): Plastic waste trade data, www.ban.org/plastic-waste-transparency-project-hub/trade-data.
- Basel Convention (2021a): Ban amendment, www.basel.int/Implementation/LegalMatters/BanAmendment/Overview/tabid/1484.
- Basel Convention (2021b): Plastic waste amendments, www.basel.int/Implementation/Plasticwaste/Amendments/Overview/tabid/8426.
- Environmental Investigation Agency (2021): The truth behind trash: the scale and impact of the international trade in plastic waste, eia-international.org/wp-content/uploads/EIA-The-Truth-Behind-Trash-FINAL.pdf.
- "Environmental Investigation Agency (2023): Plastic Waste Power Play: The ofshoring and recycling displacement involved in trying to recycle EU plastic waste, eia-international.org/report/the-offshoring-and-recycling-displacement-involved-in-trying-to-recycle-eu-plastic-waste/.
- Minderoo (2023): Plastic waste makers index, cdn.minderoo.org/content/uploads/2023/02/04205527/Plastic-Waste-Makers-Index-2023.pdf.
- OECD (2022): Global plastics outlook: economic drivers, environmental impacts and policy options, www.oecd-ilibrary.org/environment/global-plastics-outlook_de747aef-en.