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Plastic waste 'swamps south-east Asia' after Chinese ban

China’s decision to bar imports of most recyclables has seen a deluge of waste materials flow into nearby countries, leading to a series of toxic dumps emerging.

The claim has come from Greenpeace and the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (Gaia) in a report on the impact of China’s move.

They said in a report Discarded – Communities on the Frontlines of the Global Plastic Crisis that water contamination, crop death, illness and the open burning of plastic waste had afflicted south-east Asia since the ban.

Waste had been diverted from China to Vietnam, Thailand and Malaysia; once those countries imposed restrictions, it spilled over into Indonesia and India.

Von Hernandez, global co-ordinator of campaign group Break Free from Plastic, said: “Plastic waste from industrialised countries is literally engulfing communities in south-east Asia, transforming what were once clean and thriving places into toxic dumpsites.

“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.”

Investigations in Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand found illegal recycling operations and crime syndicates, open burning, water contamination, crop death and a rise of illness tied to environmental pollution that has led citizens to protest and governments to rush in restrictions to protect their borders, many following China’s lead with import bans.

It said waste exports then found their way to any country without adequate means to regulate it, giving the examples of North Sumengko in Indonesia, which Greenpeace said had “turned into an international dumping ground almost overnight”, with waste piled two metres high.

Kate Lin, a senior campaigner with Greenpeace East Asia, said: “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. It’s a predatory system, but it is 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 is unacceptable.”

Campaigners said exporting countries should deal with their plastic pollution problem at home instead of passing the burden to Asia.

Lin said that despite western consumers making well-meaning attempts to recycle plastics, these could not keep pace with plastic production, “as only 9% of the plastics ever produced are recycled”.

She said heavy plastics users such as consumer goods companies and supermarkets should reduce single-use plastics packaging and move towards refill and reuse systems.

Zero Waste Europe said plastic waste exports dropped almost 50%, from 12.5m tons in 2016 to 5.8m tons in 2018 but because plastic manufacturing is projected to rise, this drop in exports in part meant ‘recyclable’ plastics would continue to stockpile or head for improper disposal at home.

Commenting on the Greenpeace findings, Zero Waste Europe policy officer Pierre Condamine said: “Europe needs to end double standards for plastic recycling. It is time that European Member States stop exporting low-quality plastics to countries which lack the infrastructure to safely handle this waste.

“We cannot claim to be global leaders in the circular economy if we are off-loading our consumption problem to other parts of the world”.


Picture: GAIA/CC BY-NC SA4.0/Adam Dean

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