Export Waste: How it Exacerbates Global Inequalities and is Counterintuitive to the Fight for Climate Action

Waste buildup in Ciapus River in Bogor, Indonesia

The buildup of global waste throughout the years is not an enjoyable subject to dwell on. However, given how certain countries and communities around the world bear more of the burden of plastic pollution than others, it is necessary to consider how current global waste production and waste management practices exacerbate inequalities.

In focusing specifically on the horrors of waste exporting, this piece will argue that, despite recent efforts to curb waste exporting abroad, this does not change the fact that countries have found ways around these new laws, or that the practice has worsened -- and will keep worsening as long as it continues -- global inequalities. Not only this, but the practice of waste exporting shows a lack of leadership on the part of the Global North to lead the efforts on climate action.

Export waste is the practice that occurs when countries transport their waste that they deem recyclable abroad, and it is typically transported from developed countries to developing countries. Given that in 2021, plastic production had skyrocketed to a total of 10 billion tons, and that, between 1988 and 2021, around 250,000 million tons of said plastic waste was transported abroad, it is clear that the Global North has taken full advantage of the practice of exporting waste.

However, it is a dangerous practice and outright exploitative of the Global South, considering that the countries that waste has been sent to over the years do not have the tools to safely dispose of it. For instance, data from Plastic Pollution Coalition demonstrates that, in 2018, the United States shipped over one million tons of plastic abroad, and 78% of this waste was shipped to countries that lacked safe waste management regulations.

Not only does export waste display a lack of accountability on the countries participating in the practice of managing their own waste production, but there are also many harmful effects that accompany waste mismanagement. Because of this, waste exporting further exemplifies a lack of care on the part of countries participating in the practice for the health and well-being of both the environment and people’s physical health. To put this into perspective, a lot of foreign plastic sent to Vietnam is processed on the informal scale, which requires many resources and leads to both air and water pollution. Additionally, in North Sumengko in Indonesia, farming used to be widespread, though today, the land in this area has been adversely transformed by plastic waste exports.

Overall, a 2021 report by the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) records that the global waste trade harms both environmental health and water quality, triggers air pollution, and contributes to both biodiversity loss and to climate change. As for additional direct harm done to communities, the global waste trade can heighten the impacts brought on by natural disasters and can lead to toxic chemicals being unleashed into communities. It is vital that countries responsible for exporting waste are held accountable for burdening communities with their trash, because grave environmental and health problems have been literally and metaphorically “dumped” on communities, and they should not have to provide their own environmentally sound solutions to dealing with said waste.

The good news is that there have been commendable attempts to curb waste exporting. China for one, which had previously been accepting a significant amount of waste from foreign countries, banned foreign plastic waste from entering the country in 2018. A few years after this, the Basel Convention, which, under the United Nations Environmental Program regulates the “transboundary movements of hazardous and other wastes”  decided to place harsh limitations specifically on plastic waste exports, and these limitations have been in effect since January 2021. A positive feature of this amendment to the Basel Convention is that it has the potential to get countries to assume ownership for their own waste production and to also produce less waste in the future, which the EU is currently doing.

However, countries have found ways around this amendment to the Basel Convention showing that this practice is not going to disappear overnight. To provide an example, the United States, unfortunately, continued with its exporting of plastic waste to Malaysia, even after the new Basel Convention amendments severely limited the plastic waste trade. Additionally, The European Union and Canada have also gone against the new Basel Convention plastic waste amendment. The fact that countries are finding ways around assuming accountability for their own plastic waste production is alarming as it shows a lack of leadership for fighting against both climate change as well as against global inequality.

Going forward, there should be a complete ban – not a partial ban that countries could find ways to get around by either legal or illegal means -- on waste exporting from the Global North to the Global South. Additionally, reparations are long overdue for countries that have for years been taking on the burden of foreign waste imports. Countries that have exploited the practice of waste exporting should have to help fund the development of proper waste management technology for countries they have exported waste to.

Hopefully, in subsequent years, countries can learn to work in tandem to fight against the global inequalities that waste exporting has caused and can develop sustainable solutions to curbing global waste production so that waste exporting will not be necessary in the first place.