China's ban on plastic scrap and waste imports has unveiled the hidden dynamics of the global plastic waste trade. The world has discovered that plastics collected for recycling are actually being exported with scarce control or care for their real destiny. These materials may not even be recycled, ending up in landfills, dumps or waterways and endangering the environment and human health in importing countries.
Until 2017, China took 51% of all plastic waste traded globally. When China shut its ports to plastic scrap imports, exporting nations soon began looking for new countries to absorb the orphaned waste. Southeast Asia is the most impacted region. According to plastic recycling media sources, Thailand ́s plastic waste imports increased by 640% from January to June 2018, compared the same period the previous year. By June, there were 30,000 idle containers at the country's ports, due to problems with import permits and lack of capacity. Plastic waste imports in Taiwan were 2.5 times higher the first quarter of this year, compared to the same period in 2017. As a result, the price of domestic plastic waste in Taiwan has plummeted.
By June, several Southeast Asian countries started to take action to protect themselves against this plastic scourge. As more countries shield themselves against the dangers of foreign waste, the tide of plastic waste may well find its way to other Asian countries such as India, as well as African countries, although this risk is insufficiently acknowledged. It is critical that the international community find ways to halt the proliferation of plastic waste, not merely shift the burden of managing the ever-increasing load onto other countries. An important first step would be to reclassify plastic scrap under the Basel Convention to mandate more transparency and regulation of the global plastic scrap market. Countries have a right to know exactly what is being sent to their shores so that they can make informed decisions that fit the needs of their citizens and their environment.
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