Exports of plastic waste from the US to developing countries have surged following China’s crackdown on foreign waste imports, new research has shown. Nearly half of plastic waste exported from the US for recycling in the first six months of 2018 was shipped to Thailand, Malaysia and Vietnam, according to an analysis of US census bureau data by Unearthed, Greenpeace’s investigative arm. The previous year, the US sent more than 70% to China and Hong Kong. This year’s ban on foreign waste imports by China, previously the world’s biggest importer of plastic waste for recycling, has left western countries scrambling to offload its extra plastic waste. The US, along with Britain, Germany, Japan and Mexico, is among the biggest exporters of scrap plastic to China.
Campaigners said the analysis, which Unearthed shared with the Guardian, shows the US is exploiting developing countries where there is no regulatory framework to ensure plastic waste is processed in an environmentally friendly way. “Instead of taking responsibility for their own waste, US companies are exploiting developing countries that lack the regulation to protect themselves,” said John Hocevar, Oceans campaign director for Greenpeace USA. The waste, some of which consists of household recycling produced in the US, includes single-use plastic bottles, plastic bags and food wrappings, said Hocevar. It can, however, contain toxic materials. “It’s a problem for the US and other developed countries to produce, often, toxic material which they can’t or won’t take care of themselves.” Hocevar said that China’s decision to no longer accept waste has revealed the scale of the global plastic waste crisis, “Which is that we are producing an enormous amount of plastic material that we don’t know how to handle. The average person when they put a piece of plastic in a [recycling] bin, they assume it is being recycled, not being shipped to China or now to south-east Asia, where it will possibly be incinerated or landfilled.”
The data, obtained by Unearthed through the US census bureau, shows that in the first half of 2018, US exports of plastic waste dropped by a third compared with last year, from 949,789 metric tonnes to 666,780. Exports to China dropped by 92%, while those to Hong Kong dropped by 77%. At the same time, US exports of plastic waste to Thailand shot up by almost 2,000% this year, to 91,505 metric tonnes. US exports of plastic waste to Malaysia rose by 273%, to 157,299 metric tonnes, while those to Vietnam rose by 46%, to 71,220 tonnes. Exports to Turkey and South Korea also rose significantly in the same period. Reports suggest countries in south-east Asia are struggling to process and manage the tide of plastic waste waiting to be processed following the China ban. “As the imports increased, we see these countries starting to react,” said Hocevar. “Ultimately, we need to reduce this waste at source.”
In Thailand, where in June the death of a pilot whale with 80 plastic bags in its stomach highlighted the harmful effects of plastic in waterways, local media report that Thai government officials are considering a ban on all waste imports, following irregularities found in recycling plants. In May, Vietnam temporarily banned plastic waste imports after two of its ports became “overwhelmed” with scrap imports following China’s ban. Two months later, Malaysia revoked permits for some plastic imports after factories involved in recycling in Banting, south-west of Kuala Lumpur, were forced to close amid residents’ complaints of air and water pollution.
Daniel Hoornweg, an associate professor in the faculty of energy systems and nuclear science at the University of Ontario technology institute, said of the rise in US exports to south-east Asia, “It does come across as opportunistic. My guess is over time; those countries will crack down on imports and processing waste. Canadians, Americans and Europeans need to realise it is an issue that is bigger than saying no to a plastic bag at the checkout. This requires a fundamental overhaul of our economy. What is interesting is that the stuff that the US is sending as recycled plastic ended up being sent back to the US and sold in plastic toys in supermarkets.” Adina Renee Adler, senior director of international affairs at the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries, a trade body, said that the US plastic waste industry is “not dumping waste on south-east Asia” because there is a legitimate market for the material. “What we say is recyclable material or scrap waste is bought, not sold,” she said. The temporary bans and other problems in these countries, she said, were due to problems with unscrupulous companies moving from China and working illegally, without proper controls. “The response from the government was, our ports are being overwhelmed. But we hope that these bans are temporary because there is a legitimate trade.” US and Canadian markets for processing recycled plastic are increasing, Adler added.
Credit: Karen McVeigh for The Guardian, 5 October 2018.