Reduce plastic production to help Southeast Asia

Global treaties must be ratified and properly enforced, and eventually a full ban on single-use plastic will be needed
<p>Plastic waste at Cam Ranh, Vietnam. Exports of plastic waste to several South Asian countries have increased in recent years, since China banned plastic waste imports in 2018. (Image: Arco / A. Rose / Alamy)</p>

Plastic waste at Cam Ranh, Vietnam. Exports of plastic waste to several South Asian countries have increased in recent years, since China banned plastic waste imports in 2018. (Image: Arco / A. Rose / Alamy)

In January 2018, China banned the import of 24 types of waste, including plastic. This policy, known as National Sword, had significant ramifications for Southeast Asia, as many developed countries sought alternative destinations for their waste. Three years later, what is the state of waste importing in the region?

Following on from National Sword, in 2018 China’s plastic waste imports declined 95.4% and global plastic waste trade flow almost halved. Total imports into Southeast Asia, however, surged 362%. According to the South China Morning Post, between 2018 and 2020 Malaysia took in more imported waste than any other nation. Thailand’s plastic waste imports increased 1,000%. In Indonesia, imports increased towards the end of 2018 as Malaysia and Thailand began imposing their own restrictions. The following year, the Philippines was also on the receiving end of waste from countries like Canada, South Korea and Australia.

Looking at the bigger picture, waste trade reflects the unethical behaviour of industrialised countries and global north producers who employ different ways to externalise and transfer the responsibilities for managing their plastic waste to countries in the global south, including Southeast Asia. These exports exacerbate the environmental burden of recipient countries while creating additional environmental risks and social burdens, especially for informal workers and communities. Civil society actors working at the intersection of environmental and social justice issues describe this as a form of waste/toxic colonialism, an issue layered with inequality and injustice. 

As waste imports to Southeast Asia increased following National Sword, civil society organisations called on their respective governments to enact bans and restrictions. But some enterprising groups still found ways to move unauthorised materials.

According to Interpol, “there has been a considerable increase over the past two years in illegal waste shipments, primarily diverted to Southeast Asia via multiple transit countries to camouflage the origins of the waste shipment.” The agency pointed to the link between crime networks and legitimate pollution management businesses, which are used as a cover for illegal operations, resulting in financial crime and document forgery for global operations.

At the same time there has been an increase in illegal waste incineration as well as dumping at landfills, not only in Asia but also in Europe. These practices, together with the lack of effective regulations, lead to increased health risks for informal waste pickers and waste workers. A report published in 2019 by the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives documented several “illegal business operations” importing waste into Malaysia that previously would have gone to China. In some cases, Chinese businesses or entrepreneurs were directly connected to these businesses.

The need to ratify the Basel Convention

The impact of the National Sword policy on Southeast Asian countries could have been avoided if regulations like the Basel Convention (on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal) had been fully enforced. Signed in 1992, the convention was designed to enable developing countries to resist waste imports. The treaty, which currently has 187 parties, aims to reduce and minimise waste at source; manage waste within the country in which it has been generated; reduce the transboundary movement of waste to a minimum; manage waste in an environmentally sound manner; and ensure waste trade that does occur has been properly consented to.

Civil society organisations and anti-waste movements earned a landmark victory in December 2019 when the Basel Ban Amendment became an internationally recognised law. The amendment eliminated the “recyclable” loophole and banned the export of hazardous waste from member states of the European Union, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and Liechtenstein to all countries that ratified it. It was designed to ensure an unconditional end to toxic waste imports that have caused pollution in many local communities in Southeast Asia over the past few years. It entered into force on 1 January this year.

However, Southeast Asian countries like Thailand and the Philippines have yet to ratify the amendment. Rather than delay, countries in the region should come out strongly and ratify it in order to solidify the enforcement of the Basel Convention.

Beyond regulating and banning – a global treaty?

As well as plastic waste, Southeast Asia has been inundated with false solutions and stop-gap measures to resolve the plastic pollution crisis, peddled by multinational corporations.

In our recent report, “Missing the Mark: Unveiling Corporate False Solutions to the Plastic Pollution Crisis”, Break Free From Plastic have assessed the plastic solutions projects of seven top plastic polluters. Common “false solutions” include: technologies that are unproven at scale, collection or disposal by third parties, false narratives and announcements that are not followed by actions. The report defines “false solutions” as anything claimed to be part of the solution that does not tackle the root cause of the issue – by reducing the number of plastic items being produced.

Beyond regulating and banning single-use plastic at the local and state level, plastic production has to stop. Corporations need to set up clear reduction targets for single-use plastic and develop alternatives based on systems of refill and reuse, while increasing recycling rates. At the global policy level, countries must work towards a binding international agreement to resolve the plastic waste problem, covering all aspects of the single-use plastic lifecycle. In this way, environmental and social justice, as well as the human rights impacts of the plastic pollution crisis in Southeast Asia, can be addressed.

Whether countries will be able to take the first step towards a global treaty during the scheduled United Nations Environment Assembly in February next year remains to be seen. Clearly, major plastic producers such as the United States and China need to step up. Doing this will also help them achieve their climate targets by reducing the huge carbon footprint of plastic. Southeast Asian nations should also support a global treaty since this is a step in the right direction for their citizens.

This article was first published on China Dialogue.