LAST STRAW

After China, Southeast Asia is also detoxing from imported plastic trash

Where it ends up.
Where it ends up.
Image: KARTIKA SUMOLANG/via REUTERS
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After serving as the world’s scrap collector for decades, China’s decision to ban imports of almost all plastic waste last year upended the world’s recycling habits, and left developed countries scrambling for a new destination for trash. They turned to Southeast Asia.

Now Southeast Asia, facing a deluge of plastic waste, is also increasingly rejecting foreign trash.

On Wednesday (Jan. 9), the Philippines will ship 6,500 tons of illegally exported plastic waste that arrived this past August back to South Korea, according to the Korean Herald. It’ll mark the second time within a couple of months that the Philippine government has forced South Korea to take back illegally imported waste. Environmental groups protesting the imports have called on the government to take measures to stop the country from being a dump for global waste.

It’s the latest sign of a growing intolerance in the region to waste from other nations, after a surge in scrap imports saw nearly half of US plastic waste go to Malaysia, Thailand, and Vietnam in the first six month of 2018, compared with 10 percent in 2017, according to an analysis of US trade data by Unearthed, Greenpeace UK’s journalism arm.

In July, Vietnam banned the issue of new licenses for the import of waste and cracked down on illegal shipments of waste, after it saw a big increase. In March, shipping company APL announced it would have to temporarily stop sending plastic scrap from the U.S. and Canada to Vietnam because of a backlog of containers of recycled plastics at the country’s ports, and followed it with a similar announcement in April for Malaysia and Thailand.

In mid-October, Thailand—which saw an almost 2,000 percent rise in its imports of US plastic waste in the first six months of 2018—announced that it would halt many electronic waste imports in 2019 and stop plastic waste imports by 2021 (paywall). The same month, Malaysia announced that it would permanently ban plastic waste imports in three years.

The UK more than tripled its plastic waste imports to Malaysia, from less than 16,000 metric tons in the first four months of 2017 to more than 50,000 metric tons in the same period last year, according to the Unearthed 2018 report.

The changes to the global recycling supply chain have drawn attention to the enormous amount of plastic waste being generated globally, and how poorly it’s managed. Through 2030, an estimated 111 million metric tons of plastic waste could accumulate that would otherwise have gone to China, according to a 2018 study by the University of Georgia.

A 2017 study by the University of California’s Bren School of Environmental Science and the University of Georgia estimated that only 9% of the plastic trash ever produced has been recycled, while 80% ended up in landfills and oceans.

Southeast Asia’s reluctance to import waste come as the region grapples with the enormous amount of plastic waste it generates on its own, which has already wreaked havoc on local ecosystems. A 2017 Ocean Conservancy report (pdf, page 3) noted that China, Indonesia, Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam have been dumping more plastic in oceans than the rest of the world combined.

Last June, a pilot whale was found floating dead off the coast of Thailand—an examination found 80 plastic bags in the whale’s stomach, weighing 18 kg (40 lbs). Just months later, a sperm whale that washed up off Indonesia (pictured above) was found to have 1,000 pieces of plastic in its belly, including more than 100 drinking cups.