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Plastic pollution and environmental justice: the trade of waste

Yesterday I introduced the topic of environmental justice and covered how it relates to plastic pollution with regards to where and how our plastic is produced. As I mentioned, I’ve broken this post up into three parts:

Plastic pollution is fundamentally an environmental justice issue because of how exports of waste reflect global inequalities. OECD countries[1] produce an average of 2.2 kg per capita per day of waste[2] (note: this is not just plastic, but is illustrative of the problem). And where does this trash go? You might be surprised to find out that a huge amount of this waste, especially what you are putting in your recycling bin, is actually being exported to developing countries, particularly in South East Asia.

China has imported a cumulative 45% of global plastic waste since 1992[3]. That’s mind boggling. Here’s a graphic below pulled from the Brooks et al paper that shows the sources of plastic waste imports in to China in 2016 and the cumulative plastic waste export tonnage (in million MT) in 1988-2016.

Sources of plastic waste into China in 2016 and current plastic waste export tonnage (in million MT) in 1988-2016. Source Brooks et al (2018)

 The EU, one of the most “environmentally responsible” set of countries in the world, was sending about 87% of its plastic waste exports to China between 2000 and 2008[4]. Why do countries export their waste to China? Long story short, many developed countries don’t have the domestic capacity to recycle, so it’s cheaper to export to other countries, especially China.  And over time, the impacts of this high import of waste began to weigh heavily on China:  air quality was declining, illegal waste was being smuggled across their borders and the country was being saddled with contaminated and even hazardous waste.

In order to combat this, China’s National Sword policy placed restrictions on imports of 24 types of waste and set higher contamination limits, and when it was originally implemented (a year ago, in January 2018), many environmentalists thought that this would fundamentally shift the way developed countries deal with their waste. Perhaps plastic would be taxed more highly, incentives would be offered for circular economy products or there would be investment in domestic recycling capacity. Instead, much of the waste that was previously going to China is now instead being diverted to other South East Asian countries, particularly Vietnam and Thailand. Why do we feel it’s acceptable to send our waste to other places and have people in developing countries deal with the impacts of our consumption?

What’s more, the import of waste is not adequately addressed when it comes to the “culprits” of plastic in the ocean. This is an actual quote  from The Economist[5]:

“Most of the plastic in the seas today comes not from tidy Europe and America, but from countries in fast-developing East Asia, where waste-collection systems are flawed or non-existent.”

Tidy Europe?! Now, I’m not denying that Europe is tidy. I’ve lived in Europe, specifically Switzerland, for over 20 years. It is insanely clean here: you rarely see rubbish on the streets, waste is duly collected once a week, recycling can be found in every small village all over the country. It’s only by digging deeper that I found out that Switzerland (like almost every other European country, and the US, and Canada, and New Zealand, and Australia…) has been exporting their waste to the developing world for decades. (And are now genuinely freaking out that they have nowhere to dump their waste.) And while that is bad enough, there are now hundreds of pieces, like this one in the Economist, that uses judgemental language to place the blame of plastic into the ocean squarely with these countries. How is any of this fair?

This is the best way I can explain it: imagine, if as a kid, you had a kind of messy room. Okay, it’s not perfect, but in general your stuff was sort of in order, save a few toys strewn about here and there. Now imagine your older sibling lives across the hall and their room is a complete mess, so much so that they have literally run out of room and have nowhere to put their stuff. Now, your sibling knows that when your parents get home that they are going to get an earful, so they slip you some of their allowance to put some of the mess in your room. Except they actually put 87% in your room, and when your parents get home, they scream at you for having such a messy room and for filling the ocean with plastic! (Wait, I think my analogy kind of fell apart at the end there). My point is, you’d be supremely irritated and you’d feel like the blame was being totally misappropriated. See where I’m going with this?

You may have already seen this map, pulled from Jenna Jambeck et al’s 2015 paper “Plastic waste inputs from land into the ocean”, where they assessed the leakage of plastic entering the ocean, ranking countries according to the estimated mass of mismanaged plastic waste living within 50km of the coast. This paper is what gave us the oft-quoted “8 million metric tons of plastic entering the oceans annually”, which is a really useful statistic to help frame the problem. The top five countries from their assessment in terms of mismanaged plastic waste were China, Indonesia, Philippines, Vietnam and Sri Lanka. This data is incredibly useful and important in targeting better waste management infrastructure, but it is vital that we see the issue in the wider frame of the import and export flows of plastic and tracing back the waste in order to implement upstream and preventative measures.

Stay tuned for tomorrow’s piece on human health!

[1] Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries are high-income countries. Current membership is at 36 states including the US, the UK, Canada, Switzerland, Australia, Japan and more.
[2] World Bank (2018) What a Waste: A Global Review of Solid Waste Management,  Urban Development Series – Knowledge Papers
[3] Brooks, Amy L., Wang, Shunli and Jambeck, Jenna R. (2018) The Chinese import ban and its impact on global plastic waste trade, Science Advances, Vol. 4, No. 6
[4] Moses, Kara (2013) “China leads the waste recycling league”, The Guardian, June 14th 2013
[5] The Economist (2018) “Only 9% of the world’s plastic is recycled”, May 6th, 2018 

  • Rachael Hunter
    Posted at 23:06h, 07 January Reply

    Thanks so much for this. So informative and well written. Keep them coming Alexis.

    • Alexis McGivern
      Posted at 23:26h, 07 January Reply

      Thanks so much for reading, Rachel!

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