Waste Trade: Asia Pacific

Waste trade is the international trade of waste between countries for further treatment, disposal, or recycling. Often, toxic or hazardous wastes are exported by developed countries to developing countries, such as those in Asia Pacific. Since 1988, more than a quarter of a billion tonnes of plastic waste has been exported around the world. If the world is serious about tackling marine plastic pollution, the open trade of plastic waste from rich to weaker economies must end.

Plug the Leak - what's wrong with plastic waste exports?

A lot of consumer plastic waste sorted for recycling often gets shipped to other countries instead. There are many issues behind shipping plastic waste, this explainer focuses on 3 critical problems. It draws from the experience of 3 countries, namely, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Turkey in dealing with legacy plastic waste - the build-up of plastic waste over years, shipped in from other countries, and dumped on developing countries with poor waste management infrastructure.

Why is ending plastic waste trade important?

Source: Plastic Waste Transparency Project, Basel Action Network
World over, due to the unsustainable production and consumption of plastic coupled with limited waste management capacity, countries have been exporting their waste to other countries with lower labour and recovery costs. For years, China was the primary destination for most of the world’s plastic waste and the impacts on its ecosystems, waste workers and other communities were devastating. In January 2018, China’s National Sword policy effectively stopped imports of plastic waste to the country, and plastic waste exports from the US, Europe, Australia, Japan, and other industrialised economies were diverted to Southeast Asia.

Many importing countries are ill-equipped in terms of infrastructure to handle their domestic recycling, let alone that from other regions. Local plastic recyclers end up focusing on recycling easily available imported plastics, instead of developing domestic systems of waste collection and segregation.

As dumpsites expand and imported plastic waste is increasingly co-incinerated as fuel in cement kilns or other industrial boilers, as opposed to being recycled back into plastic, this severely affects the environmental health, social wellbeing and economic development of recipient countries.

What lies ahead?

In February 2022, at the UNEA 5.2 in Nairobi, Kenya, member states of the United Nations committed to a legally binding treaty to address the plastic problem across its lifecycle: from production to disposal. The next two years (till 2024) will be crucial in framing a global, legally binding agreement to solve the problem of plastic pollution; one of the key solutions is to include bans on plastic waste exports from rich to weaker economies.

Past Events

  • The Global Plastics En’Treaty: why waste trade to the Asia-Pacific needs to stop

    Where: Meetspace A, Artotel Thamrin, Jakarta (map link here)

    Date: 03 November, 2022

    Time: 14:00 – 15:00 Indonesia | 15:00 – 16:00 Malaysia & the Philippines
  • Panel discussion: How Plastic Waste Shipments Undermine Real Solutions to Ocean Plastic Pollution

    United Nations Ocean Conference: Side Event (Virtual)

    Date: 28th June 2022

    Time: 13:00-14:30 Lisbon | 14:00 – 15:30 Paris/Berlin | 15:00 – 16:30 Turkey | 17:30 – 19:00 India | 20:00 – 21:30 Philippines/Kuala Lumpur | 08:00 – 09:30 New York


Trashed – a briefing paper on plastic waste trade in Asia Pacific

In the wake of UNEA 5.2, as global leaders work towards an international legally binding agreement to end plastic pollution, the issue of plastic waste trade is largely ignored. This briefing paper tackles the elephant in the room, with a focus on issues in Asia Pacific, to make a case for issuing stringent controls to protect weaker economies from plastic waste trade from developing countries.

Lead Organization: Break Free From Plastic
Author: Pui Yi WONG
Publication Year: 2022
Publication Month: June

Waste Trade Bites

There’s overwhelming data published every month for the amount of plastic waste traded between countries. These posts distil some of the data trends & provide an overview of the harms caused by the waste trade in Asia Pacific.
December 10, 2022
We are now plastic farmers

Plastic waste exports can have catastrophic impacts on the environment and human rights, especially the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment. Plastic waste ends up polluting water, contaminating air, and harming the health of people already facing poverty and marginalization. This is a terrible environmental injustice!” ~ Dr David R. Boyd, UN Special […]

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September 23, 2022
Japan’s plastic waste exports - and how to slow them down

Globally, the enforcement of the Basel Convention Plastic Waste Amendments has been unclear, as members of Break Free From Plastic have highlighted in a panel presentation at the last Basel Convention meeting. Similar questions surround Japan’s plastic waste exports, including whether the country has transposed the Basel Convention rules into local laws, and how it […]

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August 9, 2022
Journalists under attack for their investigative work on global plastic waste trade

On July 27, 2022, independent freelance journalists Vedat Örüç and Elif Kurttaş, were attacked while visiting an industrial area with dozens of recycling facilities in Adana, Türkiye. According to a post on Twitter by Vedat Örüç, the journalists entered a plastic recycling facility with permission from a facility’s employee. They were working on a story, interviewing […]

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May 9, 2022
Waste Trade Bites: Vietnam Waste Woes

In our last Waste Trade Bites, we highlighted how OECD countries* continue to send plastic waste to non-OECD countries. This means that richer countries are sending their waste to poorer countries. This month, we look into the waste trade between the second richest region in the world (EU-UK) and one recipient country – Vietnam. While […]

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April 4, 2022
Waste Trade Bites: Japan’s waste trade charade

Last week, Basel Action Network (BAN) released the March 2022 edition of their excellent Plastic Waste Trade Watch newsletter which shows how OECD countries continue to send plastic waste to non-OECD countries. Australia exported 108,603 tonnes of plastic waste in 2021, while thousands of tonnes of plastic waste were shipped from the UK, US, and […]

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February 21, 2022
The Global Plastics En’Treaty: why waste trade to the Asia-Pacific needs to stop

Background Despite so much news about climate change, the role of plastic pollution in exacerbating the issue is often neglected. Here’s a lesser-known fact: 99% of plastics are made from fossil fuels. Throughout their lifecycle, from (fuel) extraction to production to disposal via landfills, incineration, recycling, or simply being dumped, plastics exacerbate climate change by […]

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December 2, 2019
UK to take back 42 containers of plastic waste from Malaysia

Kuala Lumpur, 25 November 2019 – The UK has agreed to repatriate 42 containers comprising illegal shipment of plastic waste from Malaysia, in accordance with the Basel Convention. Authorities and shipping agents are currently working together in the repatriation process. The containers, which had arrived at Penang Port between March 2018 and March 2019, were […]

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May 24, 2019
Green groups call on Southeast Asian governments to resist waste imports

MANILA, Philippines (May 24, 2019) — Southeast Asian environmental non-governmental organizations are calling on their respective governments to strictly enforce bans on illegally shipped wastes from developed countries. “The recent news about waste shipments being discovered at the shores of the Philippines, Indonesia, and Malaysia is alarming. When the wealthy nations clean up, it should […]

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