Southeast Asia became dumping ground for plastic waste – study

Anna Mogato

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Southeast Asia became dumping ground for plastic waste – study

Noel Guevara

Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives' report says plastic waste from highly-industrialized nations are rerouted to developing countries after China's 2018 ban on plastic waste imports and processing

MANILA, Philippines – Countries, especially Southeast Asian nations, without policies banning imports of plastic waste are at risk of being toxic dumpsites, according to the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA).

A report released Tuesday, April 23, showed plastic waste from highly-industrialized nations are rerouted to developing countries after China imposed a ban on importing and processing plastic waste in 2018. 

Break Free from Plastic movement global coordinator Von Hernandez said the plastic waste shipped to Southeast Asian countries is “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 industrialized countries,” he added.  

GAIA’s study, which also made use of Greenpeace East Asia’s data on the global waste trade, listed the US, United Kingdom, Germany and Japan as among the top exporters of plastic scraps. 

Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand bore the brunt of rerouted plastic waste shipments, despite Malaysia and Thailand imposing restrictions in mid-2018. Vietnam also took in plastic waste before restricting imports.

The influx of the plastic waste in these countries resulted to contaminated water, crop death, respiratory illnesses caused by inhaling toxic fumes from burned plastic and the formation of organized crime linked to illegal recycling operations. (READ: Plastic is light, versatile and here to stay – for now)

Greenpeace East Asia senior campaigner Kate Lin said that once a country tightens its import policies, the sources of the plastic waste move on to other countries that have yet to regulate theirs. 

“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,” Lin added. 

Outside Southeast Asia, India and Turkey were also notable recipients of plastic waste.  

Protecting developing countries

Amid China’s move to tighten its import policies on plastic waste, overall exports of the material dropped from 11.34 million tons in the first 11 months of 2016 to 5.83 million tons in the first 11 months of 2018.

Despite the drop in exports, GAIA noted that plastic manufacturing is expected to increase by 40% in the next decade. Lin said consumer goods makers should reduce its single-use plastic packaging and shift to a refill and reuse system instead.

“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,” Lin added. 

As for the international community’s intervention, GAIA Asia Pacific regional plastics coordinator Beau Baconguis said that the least that could be done is ensure the right of the countries to know what is being brought into their shores. 

The Basel Convention, an international treaty on dealing with hazardous waste, is set to convene from April 29 to May 10 to discuss Norway’s proposal extend the “prior informed consent” system to plastic waste.

The system requires exporters to seek the permission from destination countries before it can ship in its hazardous waste to that country. (READ: Nations agree ‘significant’ plastic cuts)

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

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