The world produces two billion tonnes of waste per year. Most solid plastic waste is produced in the Global North, which includes countries that are more economically developed and industrialised. Less developed countries in the Global South buy this waste for different reasons: processing, repurposing and disposal. Exporting the waste is often cheaper than reducing, sorting, cleaning or recycling it locally. With a global demand to recycle more, the waste trade has now become an industry worth hundreds of billions of dollars. The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) estimates plastic waste will almost triple by 2060, with half of it ending up in landfills and only a fifth recycled.
Since the burden of dealing with waste is exported elsewhere, there is nothing to discourage plastic production in the global north. As a result, plastic waste is set to increase four times in the next 30 years.
Historical data and projection of plastic waste production and disposal
The Human Cost of Waste Colonialism
This has inevitably created a new 'waste colonisation' in the global South.
In reality, most of the waste is not pure solid plastic and ends up in landfills. The Global South lacks the capacity to manage their own domestic waste. This means that the imported waste ends up being dumped; what’s left is the harsh reality of locals picking through the waste to sell pure plastic.
Limited access to education in the global South means that many people are not aware of the harmful toxins plastic contains. Exposure to the polymers in plastics have been linked to different health conditions ranging from asthma to infertility, ADHD and autism. We are still learning about the effects of polymers on human health and there may potentially be other health risks we don´t know about yet.
Furthermore, burning plastic waste in Indonesia and exposure to this is linked to cancer, damage to the immune system and developmental issues. Researchers from IPEN (International Pollutants Elimination Network) tested chicken eggs for dioxins (persistent organic pollutants), to see if they had made it into the food chain. As expected, near factories that burn plastics for fuel, they found that the eggs exceeded the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) tolerable daily intake. They also found that the eggs contained toxic flame retardant chemicals (SCCp’s and PBDE’s) used in plastics. Long-term exposure to these eggs will lead to serious health problems.
China had been the dumping ground for plastic waste for a long time until it said ‘STOP’ with the National Sword Policy which was implemented in 2018. This policy banned 32 types of waste imported into the country, including plastic and paper waste.
This disrupted the global recycling market, so waste exports were redirected to Southeast Asia: Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, India, Turkey, Tunisia, and several in Latin America. These countries were unprepared for the surplus of waste, so importers and exporters took advantage of loopholes in existing laws and poor regulations in waste imports. This has opened doors to:
Human rights violations
False shipment declarations
Asian countries fighting back
In 2019, Malaysia returned 4,120 tons of plastic waste to thirteen countries and officials have closed two hundred illegal plastic recycling centres since 2019.
Their waste dispute with Canada in 2019 resulted in the Philippines returning 69 containers of mislabelled Canadian waste and more than 100 containers to South Korea.
On 12th December 2022, a law was passed where companies are taxed $1.75 for every kilogram of single-use plastics that they produce or import. This will rise by 4% annually starting in 2026.
In 2018 Thailand banned highly toxic e-waste, which includes discarded electronic appliances such as phones, computers, TV.
They plan to ban all imports of plastic waste by 2025.
Small Steps in the Right Direction
The Global South can fight back, but realistically, the solutions can be achieved by changes in policies, waste disposal and reducing plastic production in the Global North. Get involved by advocating to end the export of ALL waste with organisations such as Rethink Plastic alliance, and the Break Free from Plastic movement and the Basel Action Network. Changes like these occur when activists make a stand and lobby for change:
In July 2022, the UN General Assembly recognised a safe, clean, healthy, and sustainable environment as a human right. This includes the right to live, work, study, and play in toxic-free environments.
On the 1st of December 2022, the EU finally banned ALL plastic waste sent to OECD and non-OECD countries.
In May 2019, most of the world’s countries agreed to include plastic waste as a regulated material in the Basel Convention, except the United States. The purpose of the Basel Convention is to ensure that trade in plastic waste is more transparent and better regulated.
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Image: This photo posted on the online petition on Change.org shows a container van full of hazardous waste that is being held by the Bureau of Custom in the Port of Manila. PHOTO/ CHANGE.ORG PETITION