When discussing waste issues, we tend to focus on developing countries. In these areas, waste management systems aren’t as established as those in wealthier nations, and so solid waste is more likely to leak into the environment. However, this does not mean that developed countries are exempt from the conversation; they have their own destructive role when it comes to waste pollution. Namely, the global waste trade.
The modern world is connected. What one country does, even at the household level, can affect another country across the world. The same goes for our waste. If someone throws away a plastic cup in the UK, for example, it may one day end up littering the waterways surrounding a fishing village in Cambodia on its way to becoming ocean plastic.
How exactly does this happen, and how can households and businesses in wealthy countries help to ensure that their waste doesn’t one day litter Asian communities? Let’s take a closer look.
What is global waste trade?
Global waste trade is when one country exports its waste to another country for treatment, recycling, or disposal. The waste is typically exported from a developed country to a developing nation.
The global waste trade has been going on for decades. In fact, up until 2018, the US exported as much as 70% of its waste to China. It began as a way for more industrialized countries, which were creating more waste than poorer countries, to better manage their waste. Recycling and treatment of waste are typically cheaper in developing countries, and it gave these countries an opportunity to purchase waste that they could then recycle and treat for a profit. On paper, it seemed like a win-win situation: wealthy countries could get rid of their waste while the countries receiving the waste could economically benefit.
However, there’s one major flaw in this system: countries that are importing trash often lack the resources and infrastructure to manage their domestic waste without the added burden of imported trash from developed countries. This means that imported trash is not being properly treated or disposed of. Rather, valued materials are cherry-picked from imported trash, and the rest joins the piles of mismanaged waste already littering these countries.
Until 2018, Asian countries, with China at the forefront, were the destinations of choice for waste from industrialized countries. As of 2018, however, China banned all waste trade, and many other ASEAN countries followed suit through heavy regulations. However, illegal trade resumes due to the weak implementation of regulations.
Global trash trade brings household trash in wealthy countries to Southeast Asia
Although ASEAN countries have tightened global trash trade through bans and regulations, the problem persists. Because illegal importation and the inability to follow through with the proper regulations continues, ASEAN countries are still drowning in foreign waste, especially plastic.
According to this report by IPEN, the EcoWaste Coalition, and the Swedish Society for Nature Conservation, “South Asian countries continue to be a risk to the influx of legal and illegal waste from the developed industrial world.” In the same report, they say that global waste will increase by 70% over the next 30 years. This means that the problem will only grow worse over time.
The mismanagement of domestic and foreign waste in ASEAN countries isn’t just a local issue. There is a direct correlation between marine plastic and the global waste trade. According to IUCN, at least 14 million tons of plastic enter our oceans annually. Other reports show that five ASEAN countries are responsible for around half of all marine plastic, and ASEAN countries are also the biggest importers of foreign waste. Therefore, if you throw away a plastic container in a wealthy country, there’s a chance that it can end up as marine plastic via waste management systems in Southeast Asia.
Even when regulations are adhered to and illegal imports are caught, it doesn’t always mean that the trash will go back to its source. In fact, in 2019, environmental groups Nexus3 and Basel Action Network found that only 12 of 58 containers that were seized and sent back to the U.S. actually arrived. The rest were diverted to India, Thailand, Vietnam, and other countries. This shows that local import regulations do not dispel the practice. Rather, wealthy countries that export their trash must be held accountable to end the waste trade and promote waste prevention.
How individuals and businesses in wealthy countries can help solve plastic pollution in Southeast Asia
While we wait for government entities to enact regulations to restrict the waste trade, individuals and businesses can do their part to help minimize this issue.
According to the waste hierarchy, prevention is the best way to handle trash. Citizens can do their part, therefore, by minimizing the amount of trash that their household produces. The waste that is produced can be sent to local recycling centers where it is sure to be treated and processed domestically. Beyond minimizing their household waste, they can also support sustainable businesses, like those that create products made from locally recycled plastic or that limit their overall plastic use.
Companies can do their part by making use of locally recycled plastic, carefully vetting supply chains to ensure reduced plastic use, and limiting their internal plastic use. They can also invest in plastic credit systems, like TONTOTON’s, in order to take responsibility for the plastic waste that they have accrued over time and support the collection of non-recyclable plastic in heavily polluted coastal areas.
It’s clear that plastic waste does not always stay within its country of origin. That’s why companies in wealthy countries still have a responsibility for the global plastic waste problem, especially ASEAN countries. By investing in a plastic credit system, companies can aid cleanup efforts that protect our oceans from marine plastic, and save vulnerable communities from the hazards of plastic waste, much of which was shipped from abroad.
Take responsibility by supporting TONTOTON's plastic credit system
TONTOTON’s certified plastic system supports vulnerable communities in Vietnam and Cambodia. It addresses a type of plastic commonly ignored—low-value, post-consumer plastic—in a socially responsible way.
We make use of a valuable asset, local community members, for cleanup efforts. Through plastic credit funding, we are able to employ waste pickers and provide personal protective equipment, training, access to healthcare, and competitive wages—something that was previously unavailable to them. Once employed, they collect non-recyclable plastic waste for treatment. We then take the collected plastic waste and send it to local cement factories to be converted into energy and raw materials. This way, we can deal with the plastic in a zero-waste manner.
Beyond collecting mismanaged waste, we have also developed programs to collect plastic waste at the source before it becomes ocean-bound plastic or otherwise pollutes the planet. We have distributed plastic waste receptacles to households so that they can sort their plastic waste for removal, and we work closely with local communities to provide education surrounding the dangers of plastic waste. In this way, we can contribute to prevention efforts and reduce plastic waste overall.
But, we can’t do it alone. We need corporate partners like you to take responsibility for their plastic waste through the purchase of plastic credits. We also encourage our corporate partners to make additional efforts for plastic waste prevention to help keep vulnerable communities around Southeast Asia clean and pristine.