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.
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