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 Blogs

Waste trade, often referred to as ‘waste colonialism’, highlights the power imbalance between economically developed countries of the Global North, typically the exporters of waste, and the less affluent nations that serve as recipients. These blogs hope to distil global and regional waste trade matters and provide an overview of the harms caused by the waste trade in Asia Pacific.
August 4, 2020
Re-Exportation of Last Batch of 80 Containers of South Korean Garbage Re-Ignites Call to Ban All Waste Imports

4 August 2020, Quezon City. Deceptively declared as “plastic synthetic flakes,” the contaminated plastic waste materials, which arrived in July and October 2018 at the ports in Villanueva and Tagoloan, Misamis Oriental, were found by the authorities to contain unsorted plastic materials, used dextrose tubes, soiled diapers, discarded electronics and household garbage in violation of […]

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July 1, 2020
What Happens to NZ’s Plastic Exports? Stories from Receiving Countries

Following China’s National Sword Programme, most of Aotearoa New Zealand’s (NZ) post-consumer plastics now go to Indonesia and Malaysia.

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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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August 29, 2019
Environmental activists: Call for the Indonesian government to tighten up plastic waste importation and its contaminants

Jakarta, 27 August 2019 - In 2017-2018 imports of plastic waste by Indonesian plastic and paper recycling companies increased dramatically, more than 150% compared to previous years. Malaysia, the Philippines, Cambodia, has returned more than 80 containers of mixed plastic waste mainly from the United States, which entered their country. Indonesia must seriously stop importing […]

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August 17, 2019
Australian waste export ban signals green light for dangerous waste incineration industry

Media release 12th August 2019 The Prime Minister’s announcement and COAG support for a ban on waste exports should be cautiously welcomed and is long overdue following the embarrassing revelations of Australian illegal waste dumping in South East Asia. However, it seems certain that the announcement is designed to distract from a major government push […]

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July 2, 2019
Stop Being the Dump Site: Environmental Activists Remind Jokowi

Jakarta, June 25th, 2019 - In 2015, scientists reported Indonesia as second highest contributors of global plastic polluter into the ocean. Considering China’s strict policy and other ASEAN country’s strong position in global plastic waste trade crisis, environmental activists are warning Presiden Joko Widodo on Indonesia’s absence for response and not to let Indonesia replace China’s rank […]

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June 19, 2019
Southeast Asia should ban imports of foreign trash - environmentalists

BANGKOK - Environmental groups called on Tuesday for Southeast Asian countries to ban waste imports from developed countries to help tackle a plastic pollution crisis, as regional leaders prepare to meet this week in Bangkok. Southeast Asia has seen a staggering spike in imports of plastic and electronic waste from developed countries after the world's […]

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June 19, 2019
Indonesia returns five containers of waste to the US

JAKARTA: Indonesia has returned five containers of rubbish to the United States and will not become a "dumping ground", officials said Saturday (Jun 15), the latest Southeast Asian country to return imported waste. The containers were supposed to contain only paper scrap, according to the customs documents. Instead they were loaded with other waste including […]

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June 6, 2019
Southeast Asia Doesn't Want to Be the World's Dumping Ground. Here's How Some Countries Are Pushing Back

The pushback comes as containers of trash continue to accumulate on the shores of countries like Malaysia, Thailand and the Philippines, which are increasingly worried that the environmental costs are greater than the income they bring in from importing the waste. Southeast Asia has not always been the world’s dumping ground. For decades, China was […]

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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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