Out of sight, out of mind: where our waste really goes

September 14, 2020
The increasing amount of waste we produce daily has become one of the biggest challenges of our time. Despite rising environmental consciousness throughout the world, most people show little awareness of global plastic waste trade and its harmful consequences on the environment. But now the centre of this global network, Southeast Asia has started showing signs of repentance.
Piles of discarded trash in Pattaya City, Thailand. Source: Leonid Danilov via Pexels.
Flipping through all sorts of newspapers and magazines, it is relatively easy to come across pieces about climate change- one of the biggest crises of our time. Rising temperatures, desertification, the impact of excessive plastic waste on our ecosystem: all of these big topics appear to be widely covered- and with good reason, I should add.
The environmental impact caused by our dependence on plastic comes frequently under the spotlight. On traditional and social media, we are constantly reminded of the harmful repercussions of our habits. For instance, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a humongous gyre of floating garbage located in the northern Pacific appears regularly in our Facebook or Twitter feeds. 
What is often overlooked is the way our daily waste is treated. One might think, as environmental consciousness is rising across the globe due to increasing media coverage, that recycling technologies are truly progressing and all the rubbish we carefully sort into different bins is actually being transported to recycling facilities, where it is processed according to specific regulations. However, the reality is often very different.
Most people simply overlook the fact that every year millions of tons of waste are traded across the world, constituting an actual waste trade network dominated by big players like the US, the European Union and, of course, China. The main reason behind this trade lies in the lack of management capacities for excessive plastic waste and the inadequacy of recycling techniques and facilities in countries of the Global North. In a nutshell, it turns out to be much more expensive for those countries to process mixed and contaminated waste in a sustainable way under their own national jurisdictions (especially plastic waste), than to send it somewhere else. Specifically, EU regulations allow member states to export waste to non-EU countries if recycling companies adhere to requirements valid in the Union. So, to where are these huge amounts of garbage dispatched?
Here comes our beloved Asia. In an interesting investigation, a group of researchers from the United States, UK and China has analysed the spatiotemporal evolution of the global plastic waste trade networks (GPWTNs), proving that Asia occupies a fundamental position in that network. In fact, Asia stands out as the most favoured destination for countless containers of plastic waste. It is also relevant to point out that, according to the aforementioned study, Asia accounts for nearly half of the world’s plastic production, while its per capita consumption lies well behind the global average. That means that Asian countries are more so the final destination of these amounts of waste, rather than the initial point of departure. 

On the basis of agreements which guarantee them considerable economic gains, countries like China, Malaysia, Thailand or Vietnam have been dealing with waste disposal and management for decades. Nobody really seemed to care about the fact that, as in the case of Italian waste containers shipped to Malaysia, only 20-30% of the content of the whole container is recyclable, while the remaining 70-80% often needs to be discarded and winds up in a landfill, thus causing a great deal of pollution and environmental concerns, such as water contamination stemming from waste disposal. No one seemed to pay attention to this issue until something happened– and it happened in Beijing.
After handling over half of the world’s plastic waste for several decades– reaching an outstanding 56% of the whole global trade in 2012– China enacted what is known as the ‘National Sword Policy’ in January 2018, banning the import of plastic and other materials for processing in its recycling facilities. Beijing’s move  created a major shock in the sector. Before the ban, countries like the UK used to export over 95% of their plastic waste to the PRC. The enlightening documentary ‘Plastic China’, shot before the enforcement of the ban and presented at the 2017 edition of the Sundance Film Festival, offers a very meaningful insight into the poor living conditions of facility workers - and into the industry in a broader sense.
China’s ban on plastic import has shaken up the market. While its plastic import has plummeted by 99%, other countries, such as Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam, have sniffed out the opportunity to replace Beijing and increased their plastic imports– sometimes even tenfold. The aforementioned study on global plastic trade evolution networks explains the reason why developing Asian economies, instead of those in Africa or South America, dominate the market: as relatively dynamic export-oriented free-market economies, these countries act as a breeding ground for the development of relatively new industries such as plastic recycling. The presence of sizeable Chinese-speaking minorities has facilitated the expansion of the sector, as many Chinese entrepreneurs have simply relocated to Southeast Asian countries, which maintain a very competitive pricing. Due to lax health regulations, relatively low operating costs, and inexpensive labour, Southeast Asia has become the heart of the global plastic network just in a couple of years.
Malaysia is gradually taking China’s place as the sector leader: its plastic processing industry is on the rise. In 2019 it was worth approximately 650 million euros, with import levels tripling since 2016. Thailand’s imports have been rising steadily, and the Philippines is following closely. However, according to Ted Siegler, a Vermont resource economist, none of these nations has China’s recycling capacity. Therefore, the risk of further environmental damage increases, often at the expense of local communities. The South China Morning Post reported several testimonies from residents of the Malaysian town of Jenjarom describing extreme environmental degradation, as huge amounts of plastic waste are dumped out in the open and burned. In Thailand, already one of the world’s biggest contributors to ocean waste, the upsurge in plastic imports has led to growing concerns about the country’s environment. 
But perhaps the most controversial aspect of the whole story is the frequent presence of highly-polluting hazardous plastic waste shipped from Western countries to Asia, as it contravenes the Basel Convention. This United Nations convention, adopted in 1989, regulates the transboundary movement of hazardous waste and its disposal. It was amended in 2019 with further regulations on the trade of unsafe garbage and protections for importing countries. However, it has had only a minor effect thus far. As the dispute between Italy and Malaysia shows, only a smattering of containers are inspected before exportation, and the problem of hazardous waste is simply moved from one country to another.
Flooded with unrecyclable plastic waste, Malaysia has started to push back and return some of this plastic scrap to the exporting countries, citing the Basel Convention. The Philippines has followed suit, and returned approximately 2,400 tons of illegal waste back to Canada in May 2019. Growing increasingly aware of the downsides of this industry, these import countries have slowly started to counteract by closing illegal facilities and regulating the sector. But, according to most experts, this is not a solution to the problem, as developed countries could simply export plastic to countries who have not yet put in place any regulatory systems, such as Turkey or Indonesia.
Reducing the production of plastic fundamentally is the key to solving this problem. Increasing regulations, such as the EU ban on single-use plastics or taxation systems that promote the use of recycled plastics, have value in the incremental reduction of plastic consumption. Still, only a systematic intervention on the production of plastic will work as a long-term solution. A virtuous example can be found in what is often called ‘the Asian champion of democracy’, Taiwan. Once nicknamed ‘The Garbage Island’ or ‘The Petrochemical Kingdom’, the island’s per capita waste production has been on decline for many years and its incinerators are said to be running under capacity. Despite criticism for its increasing plastic import after the Chinese ban, Taiwan’s capability for building a self-sustaining waste management system is worthy of praise and may serve as a guiding example for neighbouring countries.
Gabriele Ninivaggi
Co-Founder and Head of News
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