By Emma Nijssen
On November 8th, the Contemporary East Asia Studies (CEAS) Initiative was joined by panellists Mahesh Sugathan (Senior Policy Advisor at TESS), Xiaohui Zhang (First Secretary of the Permanent Mission of China to the WTO), and Janaka DeSilva (Senior Programme Coordinator, Global Marine and Polar Programme, IUCN), with moderator John Hancock (Counsellor, Policy Development, Economic Research and Statistics Division, WTO), for an enriching discussion on plastic waste trade in Southeast Asia. Many wealthy countries take steps to keep their streets free of litter like plastic bottles and bags via trash collection and recycling. But while consumers worldwide are encouraged to dispose of their plastic waste in specific recycling bins, what happens from that point on is less eminent–only a small percentage of this plastic is actually recycled, and much of it goes on to be exported to developing countries for disposal.
China’s ban on imports of certain types of plastic waste serves as a “wake-up call” about the poor state of the plastic waste trade today. Even within legal frameworks like the Basel Convention, classifications on the hazardousness of materials and what it means for a material flow to be “almost free” of contamination remain vague. Issues such as these mean that when countries (usually developing) import plastic waste from wealthier countries looking to outsource their recycling process, much of the shipments the former receive are filled with impurities, to the point that it becomes a cost rather than an economic opportunity for the importing country. While the recycling of used plastics should ideally present a way to make a valuable new material out of otherwise worthless waste products, it has instead become a burden.
Zhang explained the logic behind China’s ban: “There has been a high environmental cost in China for many years. We say poor people could earn money by dealing with this waste, but we found that the majority of the profit went to big companies. Poor people only earn a little money, and they pay with their health and damage to their environment, and the government found that it cannot continue because many people are suffering. This way is not sustainable… not only for China but also for other developing members.”
Given these issues, there are a few paths forward. Ideally, strict regulations would increase the circular economies of plastics, keeping the materials out of waste streams as producers are accountable for recovering their waste. But given the political difficulty of such an end, panellists suggested the following approaches:
DeSilva and the IUCN are advocating for the hotspot approach, where attention is focused on specific areas of plastic leakage into environments. However, he lamented that “the challenge will be that there is still a substantial amount of waste that ends up in third countries. Vietnam is quite advanced in addressing this issue, but what about Laos, Cambodia… if not there, it will end up in Africa. This is where global cooperation is so important, or we will just pass the buck to someone else.”
Sugathan added that policies must consider that waste begins upstream. In order to reduce plastic pollution and all the problems that stem from it, we must look at fossil fuel subsidies that enable the continued high volumes of single-use plastics. Without regulation on the production side, the problem of plastic waste will continue to grow, as the highly prevalent substance continues to evade effective management worldwide.