Illegal Plastic Waste Takes Many Routes to Southeast Asia

A commentary by Dan Southerland
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plastic1.jpg Workers dry waste plastic bags at a plastics recycling yard in Dhaka, Bangladesh Dec. 15, 2019.

Interpol, the international police organization, says that criminal organizations have been illegally shipping waste to Southeast Asia.

According to an Interpol report published on August 28, illegal waste shipments sent to the region have been increasing significantly for the past two years.

The waste, much of it plastic, passes through “multiple transit countries” to camouflage the origins of the waste shipments, the report says.

The criminal organizations engage in a “significant use of counterfeit documents and fraudulent waste registrations,” said Interpol, whose headquarters is located in Lyons, France.

A separate report from late last year showed how widespread the trafficking of plastic has become, with some plastic waste reaching Asia from Italy by way of its neighbor Slovenia.

Southeast Asian nations have been dealing with the challenges posed by plastic waste for several years. They’ve set goals for limiting its impact. But it’s been difficult to implement these goals, largely because citizens in each country find plastic to be cheap and useful in bags, cups, straws, bottles, and other utensils.

The environmental impact of all of this has been huge. Plastic waste can be found scattered on beaches or in landfills but eventually ends up in rivers and oceans. Wild animals eat some of the discarded plastic, which they mistake for food and then die as a result of consuming it.

Perhaps the most dramatic case of this happening arose when a pilot whale died in Thailand in the spring of 2018 after consuming more than 80 plastic bags.

Rescuers attempted to save the whale, but he died five days later after throwing up five of the bags.

Officials said that the animal likely thought that the plastic bags were food.

According to an autopsy, the whale had more than 17 pounds of waste in its stomach.

A scavenger collects plastic materials to be sold to recycling plants on the Bahagia river in Bekasi, Indonesia, Aug. 1, 2019.
A scavenger collects plastic materials to be sold to recycling plants on the Bahagia river in Bekasi, Indonesia, Aug. 1, 2019.
Credit: AP
China pulls out

China was previously the biggest importer of plastic waste used for recycling until the Chinese government on Dec. 30, 2017, shut its doors to imports of waste materials. China no longer had a financial incentive to continue a practice that had gone on for decades.

According to The Financial Times, China cited the fact that large amounts of the waste were “dirty” or “hazardous” and thus threatened the environment.

China’s withdrawal as the center of the plastic recycling trade resulted in an increase in the shipping of plastic waste from the United States and Europe to Southeast Asia instead of to China.

To give one example, illegal shipments of such waste to the Southeast Asian nation of Malaysia quickly surged after China withdrew from the trade.

Greenpeace, a nongovernmental organization that promotes environmental protection, reported last year that of 2,880 tons of plastic waste shipped by Italy to Malaysia between January and September of last year, half was received by companies operating illegally.

According to The Guardian newspaper, only a small number of shipping containers leaving Italy are properly checked. It estimated that only 20 to 30 percent of the material being shipped in the containers could be properly recycled.

The paper said that Malaysia began a crackdown last year aimed at closing 140 illegal recycling factories and returned 150 containers full of plastic to 13 countries, including the United Kingdom, France, the United States, and Canada.

All 11 nations of Southeast Asia from Brunei to Vietnam face the mounting challenge of plastic waste.

Five Asian nations—China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam are reported to be producing more plastic waste than the rest of the world combined. Four of them are located in Southeast Asia.

Much of the plastic in Southeast Asia has been contaminated by material that makes it more difficult and expensive to recycle.

Following China’s ban on plastic waste imports, Vietnam began importing more plastic waste. And as long as Vietnam could make money from recycling the waste, it did so.

Vietnam imported 165 million pounds of scrap plastic from the United States in 2018, making it the largest importer of U.S. plastics throughout the year.

But once it became too complicated and costly to deal with the incoming waste, Vietnam announced that a complete end to plastic waste would be imposed in 2025.

According to Greenpeace research, Vietnam has now joined China, Malaysia, Taiwan, and Thailand as countries among the top 21 importers of plastic waste that have either planned to prohibit or  have now outright prohibited scrap imports.

A 2015 report on plastic pollution published by the Ocean Conservancy and the McKinsey Centre for Business and Environment ranked the Philippines as the third-largest source of discarded plastic that ends up in the ocean behind two other Asian nations—China and Indonesia.

Africa as a new dumping ground

On August 31, The New York Times published a front-page investigative report showing how oil companies are racing to make more plastic.

But they’re facing problems: Many markets are “already awash with plastic, and few countries are willing to be the dumping grounds for plastic waste.”

According to documents reviewed by The Times, an industry group representing the world’s largest chemical makers and fossil fuel companies is lobbying to influence U.S. trade negotiations with Kenya, one of Africa’s biggest economies, to continue importing foreign plastic garbage, a practice that Kenya has pledged to limit.

The Times says that the industry has spent more than $200 billion on chemical and manufacturing plants in the U.S. over the past decade. But the U.S. already consumes as much as 16 times more plastic than many poor nations, and “a backlash against single-use plastic has made it tougher to sell more at home.”

In 2019, American exporters shipped more than 1 billion pounds of plastic waste to 96 countries, ostensibly to be recycled.

“But much of the waste, often containing the hardest-to-recycle plastics, instead ends up in rivers and oceans,” the newspaper said.

Last year, Kenya was one of 187 countries that signed an international agreement to stop importing plastic waste.

That setback for the oil companies “has re-energized the oil industry to seek deals with individual countries to boost the market for plastics,” analysts told The Times.

In Kenya’s capital of Nairobi, local groups expressed worry that Kenya will become a dumping ground for plastics.

“And not just for Kenya, but all of Africa,” said Dorothy Otieno of the Centre for Environmental Justice and Development in Nairobi.

And the COVID-19 pandemic has complicated things.

Thailand, for example, started 2020 by banning single-use plastic bags.

But once the coronavirus pandemic forced school closures and the authorities advised people to stay at home, many Thais in Bangkok chose to have food delivered in plastic bags to their homes.

In Beijing, meanwhile, many Chinese shifted to bagged home deliveries as well.

But according to the Reuters News Agency, China hasn’t released detailed data on plastic waste caused by home deliveries.

Dan Southerland is RFA's founding executive editor.


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