In Brief

Trash Trade Wars: Southeast Asia’s Problem With the World’s Waste

China’s decision to ban most trash imports has left waste-exporting countries in the lurch and Southeast Asian landfills overflowing.

For decades, wealthy countries have exported their trash to Asia—mostly to China—for processing, repurposing, or disposal. But China banned most waste imports two years ago, and now many Southeast Asian countries are moving to stop what has become an environmentally ruinous process, which could shift the burden to developing nations elsewhere.

How big is the global trash trade?

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The world produces about two billion tons of waste annually, and the most recent estimates suggest that about one-tenth of this waste enters the global trash trade. Many developed countries export their recycling to developing nations, where low-wage workers sort the trash. Manufacturers then melt down the scrap metal and plastic, which they use to produce new goods. Ideally, this process recycles all of the exported waste. However, some materials that become  contaminated cannot be reused, including those that are mislabeled, mixed with non-recyclables, or improperly cleaned. These end up in landfills or dumped in the ocean.

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Already worth hundreds of billions of dollars, the global trash industry is growing, experts say. The European Union is the world’s largest scrap plastic exporter, followed by the United States, which exports about one-third of its recyclables. In 2018, the United States sold more than 40 million metric tons of scrap material abroad, bringing in roughly $20 billion dollars.

Why did China ban most waste imports?

China used to be the world’s largest trash buyer, largely because of low shipping costs. But importing the world’s trash compounded China’s pollution problems, and rising wages began cutting into profits. China also had an increasing amount of domestic trash to sort. In January 2018, Beijing banned the import of many scrap materials and refused to accept any waste that is more than 0.5 percent contaminated, a nearly impossible standard, experts say.

This crackdown reduced China’s plastic imports by 99 percent within a year. It also created a crisis for countries that relied on China for waste management. As a result, hundreds of U.S. cities have reduced or suspended recycling programs and sent more recyclables to landfills or incinerated them.

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A woman in blue wearing a straw hat sitting amongst a sea of green soft drink plastic bottles.
A woman sorts recyclable soft drink bottles outside Hanoi, Vietnam, in November 2018. Nguyen Huy Kham/Reuters

How has this affected Southeast Asia?

Following China’s ban, exporting countries turned to Southeast Asia to manage their waste. Between 2016 and 2018, regional imports of plastic waste surged 171 percent [PDF] to over two million tons, much of which was contaminated and unprocessable. This mismanaged trash threatens Southeast Asia’s environment, as it often ends up being incinerated or dumped in waterways. There is also the problem of illegal waste dumping by exporting countries that intentionally mislabel garbage and by recycling firms that smuggle it into the region.

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Though the global trash trade is a boon for private companies, Southeast Asian governments are pushing back against it, with some imposing their own bans on waste imports.

Malaysia. Malaysia is among the world’s primary destinations for plastic waste, with a plastic recycling and manufacturing industry worth $7.2 billion. Nonetheless, the country’s government has said it is not the world’s dumping grounds. In 2019, Malaysia returned 4,120 tons of plastic waste to thirteen countries, and it is expected to return more in the coming months. Furthermore, officials have closed two hundred illegal plastic recycling centers since 2019.

Philippines. Tensions flared between the Philippines and Canada last year over approximately 2,700 tons of mislabeled Canadian waste. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte threatened to declare war or dump the trash in Canadian waters, and he recalled his country’s diplomats from Canada after Ottawa missed a deadline to take back its waste. Canada eventually did so, but environmental advocates allege its slow action violated the Basel Convention [PDF], an international agreement that regulates the trade of hazardous waste.

Thailand. In 2018, Thailand banned imports of electronic waste, which is often highly toxic, and announced a goal to end imports of plastic waste by 2021. These decisions followed public pressure to crack down on imports of contaminated trash.

Vietnam. In 2018, Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc slashed monthly trash import quotas by 90 percent and announced that his government would stop issuing licenses to import waste. Vietnam plans to ban all imports of plastic scrap by 2025.

What’s next?

Country-level plastic import bans aren’t likely to solve the global waste problem, since the waste industry can simply relocate to a different region. Africa is a likely candidate, with some of its countries already struggling with illegal waste flows from Europe. Experts say the long-run solution is clear: change consumption patterns and design products that can be reused, thereby reducing waste before it exists.

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