Seventy-five per cent of globally exported waste ends up in Asia. But since July 2017 — when China began to ban imports of plastic waste — Southeast Asia in particular has become a dumping ground for wealthier countries’ waste. After China’s ban, the amount of plastic waste imported to countries like the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia more than doubled.
As the amount of foreign waste accumulates and resentment grows among local populations, Southeast Asian governments are beginning to refuse to act as the world’s dumpsite. Both Malaysia and the Philippines recently announced plans to return waste from Western countries that had improper labelling. Malaysia and the Philippines have already returned waste to Spain and South Korea, respectively. Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam recently restricted plastic waste imports, with a complete ban planned for in the coming years.
Do these return shipments and restrictions signal that waste management is changing and improving in the region? Yes and no. There is increasing awareness of the environmental and social problems of waste — particularly plastic. As highlighted in a report by Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives, across Southeast Asia waste is causing tainted water, failed crops and respiratory illnesses. Fish are ingesting plastic. Dead whales are turning up in Thailand and Indonesia with many kilograms of plastic in their stomachs. These various factors contribute to the recent refusals or restrictions in accepting additional waste from high-income countries.
On another positive note, the Basel Convention — a treaty governing global movement of hazardous waste — was amended in May 2019 to make it illegal for unrecyclable plastic waste to be exported to developing countries without their consent. But the United States, the world’s biggest plastic waste exporter, is not a party to the convention and the new rules will not take effect until 2020. The Convention’s proponents hope that the changes will force high-income countries to address their own waste problems, rather than avoiding them by saddling developing countries.
Less positively, some Asian countries still do not have strict restrictions on waste. Indonesia still permits the importation of plastic waste to support industrial operations. Statistics reveal that the amount of plastic waste and scrap the country imported in 2018 jumped by 141 per cent.
A lot of waste is also illegally entering Southeast Asian countries. An audit found that almost one-third of waste imported into East Java, for instance, was labelled as paper scraps despite actually being illegal scrap plastic. This means that these piecemeal bans could have counterproductive effects. For example, Indonesia’s waste processing is worse than in many other places but, as the NGO Balifokus projects, the country will soon become the largest importer of waste.
A larger problem is that the changes that are needed to drastically improve these countries’ plastic management have yet to occur. Single-use plastic consumption is still worryingly high in these countries. And comprehensive bans or taxes, such as on single-use bags, are few to non-existent. Voluntary measures have often been promoted, but they still have limited effectiveness. Thailand, for example, still uses around 200 billion plastic bags each year.
These countries’ waste management is also woefully inadequate. Recycling rates throughout the world, but especially in Southeast Asia, remain low. In many places there is no separation of household waste. Littering remains pervasive. At the household and community scales, inadequate infrastructure contributes significantly to the plastic pollution problem. Rubbish bins are often too small, uncovered and infrequently collected.
Many Southeast Asian dumpsites are unprepared to deal with the burgeoning volumes of plastic waste. Of Thailand’s 27.8 million tons of plastic waste in 2018, at least 27 per cent was improperly disposed, including via open dumping. Much of this plastic ended up in waterways, then flowing into oceans. More than half of Indonesia’s landfills are open dumpsites. In these sites, waste is piled improperly — increasing the risk of floods, fires and trash avalanches. This has led to deaths in the Philippines, Indonesia and India.
Some waste is also illegally incinerated, releasing toxic gases that harm human health. Policymakers in Southeast Asia have yet to prioritise waste management. They need to significantly invest in improving waste infrastructure and facilities.
If Southeast Asian countries no longer accept waste from high-income countries, where will the waste go? Only 9 per cent of plastic waste worldwide is recycled. Western countries have few easy solutions to deal with plastic waste, as it is often too costly for them to recycle it themselves. Unlike China, they cannot readily convert waste into new products.
Ultimately, manufacturers need to make products that can be better recycled. But some materials, such as plastic wrap film and composite materials, cannot be reprocessed easily. Western countries must also find ways to reduce their consumption of single-use plastic. The good news is that Canada is leading the way — earlier this month the country announced that it will ban a number of ‘harmful’ single-use plastic products by 2021.
Dr Danny Marks is Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies in the Department of Asian and International Studies at the City University of Hong Kong. This commentary first appeared in East Asia Forum.