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What if…exporting waste were banned?

Illustration by Andy Carter

The protesters in the Philippines were emphatic. ‘Take back!’ read their placards. Their anger was directed at 69 container loads of waste, shipped from Canada, mislabelled as ‘plastic recyclables’ but actually just garbage, including dirty diapers, stuck and stinking in customs since 2013 and 2014.

Last year, after a long battle, Canada finally took back the trash. But what this story illustrates is far from over. Indeed, it may be about to get worse.

Waste is a dirty business – in every sense of the word. The scope for malpractice is immense. With brokers trading trash, contracts can change hands several times between the source and the destination, without accountability. The result is dumping on a massive scale, generally by the richer onto the poorer.

Around 80-90 per cent of the world’s mismanaged waste ends up in low-income countries.

Up until 2018, China was taking in 45 per cent of the world’s garbage, including most of its post-consumer plastic, ostensibly for recycling and re-use in manufacturing. In fact most of it was getting incinerated or finding its way into landfills, river systems or the sea. But then China restricted imports to ‘uncontaminated plastics’, a tiny proportion of the total. It was effectively a ban.

So, did exporting countries take charge of their own waste? Dream on. As their rubbish piled up, they found other destinations: the Philippines, Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, India, Turkey, Senegal, Vietnam, among others. In 2019 the US, the world’s biggest trash exporter, was shipping 225 containers per day to countries with poor waste management, generating 120 million kilos of carbon emissions.

Importing waste provides ‘employment’ it is said – and respiratory and other diseases – for rubbish pickers, many of them children, earning under $2 a day. Often the waste is not managed at all, but accumulates close to where poor people are living. Illegality prevails.

In 2019 Greenpeace found that of 65 shipments of waste from Italy, 43 were destined for plants in Malaysia that did not have permits to import and recycle foreign waste; 200 illegal ‘recycling’ factories have since been identified and closed.

In Indonesia, civil-society groups have called on the US, Britain, Australia, Canada and New Zealand to collect their exported trash illegally dumped along the Brantas River.

In late 2019, Indonesia announced the return of 547 shipping containers to European countries. India has officially closed its doors to plastic waste imports and Thailand plans to do so from 2021.

Lack of traceability makes returning rubbish difficult. But there has been some international action. Last year, 184 countries adopted the Plastic Waste Amendment to the UN’s Basel Convention, to ‘specifically include plastic waste in a legally-binding framework which will make global trade in plastic waste more transparent and better regulated’. The US opposed the amendment.

Import bans and better regulation will only go so far. The big waste-exporting countries can exert pressure on poorer countries to accept their expanding plastics manufacturing and ‘recycling’ agenda – as we are currently seeing in the bilateral trade negotiations between the US and Kenya.

What’s needed are export bans. Australia has made moves in this direction, phasing in its own ban on the export of waste glass, plastic, paper and tyres, due to be complete by 30 June 2022. Canada is discussing prohibiting the export of non-recyclable plastic waste. 

But what about an outright international ban?

The idea does not sound at all far-fetched to engineer Ziad Abi-Shaker of Cedar Environment in Beirut, which turns plastic waste into building materials. ‘We have to come to an agreement that waste is always a local issue. No-one should be bearing the brunt of another’s waste’, he told Al-Jazeera.

Each country needs to create its own infrastructure for dealing with the waste it produces. Corporations, responsible for so much excess packaging and use of plastics in manufacturing, would have to play their part, bearing the true cost of properly managed material reduction, recycling and re-use. There would be stronger incentive to use less, and develop more eco-friendly alternatives. We might also stop deluding ourselves about how much is really recyclable (less than 10 per cent of post-consumer plastics, for example).

Reducing waste would become a national and local priority. We know from ‘zero wasters’ how much can be done on a personal level. But responsibility needs to go beyond the personal.

The logistics of managing the massive amount of waste our consumer societies create may be complex and problematic – but the ethics are quite simple. Don’t dump your shit on others.

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