New research exposes a crisis in the global trade of 'recyclable' plastics

  • Nation
  • Tuesday, 23 Apr 2019

PETALING JAYA: The plastics crisis has a clear origin - corporations that mass produce plastic packaging to boost profits, says a newly-published report.

The report by Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA ) with data analysis on the global waste trade from Greenpeace East Asia detailed how China's ban on plastic waste import led to the harmful waste harming countries across South-East Asia.

It found that China's import ban redirected the plastic waste into Malaysia, Vietnam, and Thailand, who quickly set up import restrictions. Then, exports overflowed into Indonesia, India, and Turkey.

GAIA's field investigations in Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand detailed illegal recycling operations and crime syndicates, open burning, water contamination, crop death, and a rise of illness tied to environmental pollution that has led to citizens' protests and governments rushing to place restrictions to protect their borders.

It said exports are making their way into any country without adequate regulation to protect itself.

For example, North Sumengko in Indonesia turned into an international dumping ground almost overnight with trash piled two metres high, makeshift dumps, and open burning in the farming community.

"Once one country regulates plastic waste imports, it floods into the next unregulated destination. When that country regulates, the exports move to the next one," said Kate Lin, a senior campaigner with Greenpeace East Asia.

"It's a predatory system, but it's also increasingly inefficient. Each new iteration shows more and more plastic going off grid — where we can't see what's done with it — and that's unacceptable," she added.

Lin said recycling systems can never keep up with plastic production, as only 9% of the plastics ever produced are recycled.

"The only solution to plastic pollution is producing less plastic. Heavy plastic users - mainly consumer goods companies like Nestlé and Unilever, but also supermarkets - need to reduce single-use plastics packaging and move towards refill and reuse system to get us out of this crisis," she added.

"Plastic waste from industrialised countries is literally engulfing communities in South-East Asia, transforming what were once clean and thriving places into toxic dumpsites," said Von Hernandez, the global coordinator of the Break Free from Plastic movement.

"It is the height of injustice that countries and communities with less capacity and resources to deal with plastic pollution are being targeted as escape valves for the throwaway plastic generated by industrialised countries," she added.

The report suggested that countries explore the "prior informed consent" model that is already in place for other types of hazardous waste to also be applied to plastic waste.

This means exporters of plastic waste should receive permission from destination countries in advance.

"As wealthy nations dump their low-grade plastic trash onto country after country in the global south, the least the international community can do is safeguard a country's right to know exactly what is being sent to their shores," Beau Baconguis, Regional Plastics Coordinator at GAIA Asia Pacific said.

However, ultimately, exporting countries need to deal with their plastic pollution problem at home instead of passing the burden onto other communities.


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