Waste Watch: US Dumps Plastic Rubbish in Southeast Asia

By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She is currently writing a book about textile artisans.

Nearly a year has passed since China barred imports of most plastic waste for recycling.

From 1992 until that date, 45% of all plastic waste went to China, according to a June article in Science Advances, The Chinese import ban and its impact on global plastic waste trade.

Where is that discarded plastic going now?

Answer: Southeast Asia, according to a report Greenpeace released last week, US plastic waste is causing environmental problems at home and abroad, as part of its UNEARTHED journalism project.

The Chinese ban caused US exports of plastic scrap to a decline by about a third in the first six months of 2018, from 949,789 metric tonnes to 666,760 metric tonnes.

Waste firms found other destinations for US plastic garbage. According to Greenpeace:

  • In the first six months of 2017, a little over 4,000 metric tonnes of America’s plastic went to Thailand, but the country took in 91,505 metric tonnes of America’s scrap in the same period this year. That’s an increase of 1,985%.
  • Malaysia experienced a similar increase, a rise of 273% to 157,299 metric tonnes.
  • Vietnam also saw a significant rise, to 71,220 metric tonnes in the first six months of this year.
  • Exports to Turkey and South Korea also rose significantly in the same period, to 11,224 metric tonnes and 14,760 metric tonnes, respectively.
  • Despite the China ban, Asia remains the main destination for American waste exports. In the first six months of this year, 81% of plastic waste exports from the US went to Asia, a 7% drop on 2017.

The following charts convey this information visually.

Figure 1

Source: US plastic waste is causing environmental problems at home and abroad

Figure 2

Source: US plastic waste is causing environmental problems at home and abroad

Figure 3

Source: US plastic waste is causing environmental problems at home and abroad

Southeast Asian Countries Now Saying: Enough!

So, despite the Chinese ban, most US plastic waste exports continues to end up in Asia, with three Southeast Asian countries, Malaysia, Thailand, and Vietnam, now taking in about half of the total (and India, and Turkey are increasing their shares) . The Guardian reports in Huge rise in US plastic waste shipments to poor countries following China ban:

“Instead of taking responsibility for their own waste, US companies are exploiting developing countries that lack the regulation to protect themselves,” said John Hocevar, Oceans campaign director for Greenpeace USA.

Hocevar said that China’s decision to no longer accept waste has revealed the scale of the global plastic waste crisis: “Which is that we are producing an enormous amount of plastic material that we don’t know how to handle.

“The average person when they put a piece of plastic in a [recycling] bin, they assume it is being recycled, not being shipped to China or now to south-east Asia, where it will possibly be incinerated or landfilled.” [Jerri-Lynn here: My emphasis; note that possibly, which I’ll discuss further below.]

Yet even these southeast Asian countries are now saying– Enough!– and imposing limited restrictions. These range from closing recycling plants and imposing an import  tax in Malaysia; to temporary import bans in Vietnam; to increased inspection requirements or a possible complete ban on plastic waste imports in Thailand.

The more modest of these measures are unlikely to stem imports of plastic waste.

According to Greenpeace:

Experts are concerned that these increasingly popular destinations for US waste do not have the capacity to deal with waste in a safe or environmental way.

“Some of these countries just don’t have the infrastructure in ports or roads to deal with an increase in volume of material,” Robin Wiener, CEO of US trade body the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI), told Unearthed.

“Pop-up recyclers are trying to take advantage of these shifting markets but they are not doing it properly. They are not following industry standards when it comes to environmental, health, and safety practices.”

Let me pick up on that possibly I highlighted in the excerpt from the Guardian above. What happens when recycling plants in these countries cannot keep up with the volume of imported plastic scrap? I disagree with Hocevar’s assessment and would bet that some if not much of the plastic ends up in the ocean, alongside the domestic plastic waste that already finds its way there from some of these countries.  As I wrote last month in UK Consumers Sour on Plastic Packaging:

Currently, more than half of the plastic waste that ends up in oceans emanates from five Asian countries: China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam, according to a 2015 McKinsey report, Saving the ocean from plastic waste Any serious effort to address plastic waste as a global concern must confront that reality.

Note the overlap: Thailand and Vietnam are two prime destinations for increased plastic waste imports of plastic waste and are cited in the McKinsey report.

Response of US Recyclers

This Chinese waste import ban has upended the traditional business model for US recyclers, which operate on a for-profit basis. Waste management is yet another area that’s treated according to the standard neo-liberal playbook. According to Greenpeace:

Recycling firms, under pressure to meet higher standards, have seen costs rocket. While they have traditionally paid authorities for waste that could be turned into recycled goods, they are now starting to charge the state for the cost of getting rid of it.

Jerri-Lynn here: These costs impose an additional stress on strained municipal budgets. Greenpeace provides further details:

San Diego is now facing a potential $1.1m annual charge from its waste contractor, which last year provided the city with a $4m income stream.

“The environmental benefits of recycling now come with a cost that we haven’t seen in California before,” Zoe Heller, assistant director of policy development at CalRecycle, California’s state waste management agency, told Unearthed.

“What used to be a very profitable revenue stream is now becoming a cost.”

In towns and cities across the US, firms have been taking a variety of steps to deal with the backlog. Some have suspended their recycling schemes, begun education campaigns or refused to accept certain types of plastic waste. Others have refused to pick up rubbish from outside houses, sent recycling to landfill or burned it.

The bottom line: the state of many recycling programs is a complete mess.

Trump Administration Worsens the Plastic Problem, Others Signal Their Virtue 

And to make things worse, as regular readers of my posts on plastic may recall, even well conceived, well-executed recycling programs alone won’t solve the plastic crisis (see Four Rs: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, and…Repair).

Unsurprisingly, the Trump administration isn’t interested in either the immediate recycling problem or the larger plastic issue, and by promoting fracking, ensures manufacture of more, rather than less, plastic (see Fracking Boom Further Spurs Plastics Crisis, for further details). I note that pro-fracking federal policy didn’t commence on his watch, but is a continuing bipartisan legacy of his predecessors.

TreeHugger’s report on the Greenpeace findings is Now that China won’t take plastic waste, what’s the U.S. doing? is much more optimistic than I about what comes next:

I’ve always maintained that, if we didn’t have the ability to send waste away to some nebulous, distant place, and if we had to stash it all in our own backyards indefinitely, moving to zero-waste and reusable packaging would become an obsession. The fact that we’ve been able to offshore the majority of our waste processing has caused us as consumers to grow complacent and lazy.

Jerri-Lynn here: Really?

We agree, however, that recycling is no panacea:

This report underscores what we’ve been arguing on TreeHugger for years — that recycling doesn’t work. It is not the feel-good, environmentally-friendly solution that people like to believe it is. What we need is to stop throwing things away, whether it’s in the garbage or the blue bin (compost heap excepted). This means making smart, sustainable choices as consumers, and applying pressure on manufacturers to come up with circular packaging solutions.

Alas, consumer action alone isn’t going to go very far either.

Greenpeace understands regulation is necessary, and thinks state and municipal regulators are on the case:

Stockpiling has been occurring in California, now the world’s fifth largest economy, and a number of bills are now being considered to cut plastic waste.

That’s no doubt true.

Yet let’s look what the state of California enacted with much fanfare last month, Assembly Bill No. 1884, a ban on plastic straws– a textbook example of virtue-signalling. How is this policy inadequate?

Let me count the ways. First, the ban applies to plastic straws only, and no other forms of single-use plastic (although the state does have in place a ban on single use plastic bags; see this summary by the National Conference of State Legislatures). Second, only full service restaurants must comply, so cafes and coffee shops can continue to supply such straws. Third, a customer can still request– and receive– a single-use plastic straw. I realize that some people must use straws for medical reasons, but for them, I would have thought the statute could have specified that non-plastic straws be available (e.g., bamboo, paper, metal). Fourth, the penalties are pathetic for restaurants that get caught. For first and second violations, state inspectors would warn offenders; only upon the third violation, would they impose fines of $25 per day, up to an annual maximum of $300.

This counts as serious public policy? And I point out that, sadly, California actually is much better than some states on plastic policy– as the straw ban bill allows cities, counties, and public agencies to impose tougher local bans. Whereas, as I discussed in Fracking Boom Further Spurs Plastics Crisis, other states have overturned tougher local plastic restrictions.

Compare this policy to what Vanuatu has done since the start of the year: If Vanuatu Can Ban Single-Use Plastics, So Can the Other Commonwealth Countries.

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  1. el_tel

    The issue of plastic over-use (and wider issue of “over-carbon-use-due-to-free-delivery-and-returns”) concerns me greatly. It’s already rumoured that much of the recycling around here in the UK *doesn’t* end up in recycling but put in landfill due to lack of ability to sort refuse.

    I regularly see friends (primarily female but men do it too increasingly) who would go into a branch of Next (or see something they liked in the online catalogue), order 6 versions (in different colours and sizes), then send back the 5 (freepost) that didn’t suit their needs. WTF?! Thinking as an economist, I’d do something similar to the old “buy glass bottles and get deposits back” model: be charged to go try “experiential goods” in a bricks-and-mortar-store, then get a rebate if you buy one of those goods via their OWN (cheaper) online portal. Lo and behold the high street stops losing (so much) money due to externalities. Theoretically good – yes. Practical – maybe not and I fully acknowledge someone is going to have to come up with a clever way to implement this. But the excessive carbon issue due to people “buying and returning excessively” issue is going to have to be dealt with somehow.

    1. Jerry B

      Thanks el tel. I have asked myself the same question of collateral environmental damage of the “return meme” — order 6 versions of something and then send back the 5 that didn’t suit their needs.

      It strikes me as being very sociopathic. The author Robert J. Lifton has written books about concepts of psychic numbing, doubling, disassociation, etc. in regards to Nazi doctors, Genocide, Vietnam, etc. That type of behavior is what the whole online buy-ship-return and repeat model seems to be. It is a very instrumental and callous way of behaving without any regard for the consequences (externalities) our behavior.

      Another author Renee Lertzman has written a book called Environmental Melancholia on climate change that mentions similar themes:

      “This is because we must understand on the deepest levels possible the workings of human behaviour, including unconscious processes such as denial,
      projection, splitting, disavowal and apathy”.

      1. Carl

        Or just read Dave Cohen’s excellent work on The Decline of the Empire, specifically the Adventures in Flatland series. Ultimate doomer conclusion, well-supported and argued.

        1. Jerry B

          Thanks Carl. Everyone is entitled to their opinion. Many sides of different issues are well supported. Climate change denialists can bring out studies and research supporting their stance. Pro Climate Change people can present their models and research. Same thing applies to other issues facing society . It just comes down to a simple choice really: Get busy living or get busy dying.

          1. carl

            Perhaps you misunderstood me. I recommended Cohen because his area of study sounds almost exactly like the quote in your post. You might disagree with his conclusions, of course, but its difficult to refute the science.

            1. Jerry B

              ===refute the science===

              As I mentioned in my climate change example there is “science” for both sides of many arguments.

              First a little background. I have a Masters in Psychology and for the last several years have studied neuroscience and psychoanalysis. So I am familiar with the “human nature” concepts discussed in Adventures in Flatland. I read the first twenty pages of Adventures in Flatland Part 1 and stopped. He does a very good job of presenting one side of a position. He appears to be choosing scientific examples/theories to support his belief that we are doomed because of human nature i.e confirmation bias. I am familiar with some of the authors he mentions such as Dan Kahan. I could find respected academic authors that can produce “science” that is another view of human nature that is different from the science Cohen cites.

              It seems we have a “positional” disagreement. It sounds like you agree with the conclusions in Adventures in Flatland. I do not and in my opinion, blog comments are not suitable for positional debates. Thanks for mentioning the Decline of the Empire blog. I am always interested in different viewpoints even those that see the world differently.

  2. Scott1

    The aim of plastic handling pre throw away and post throw away must be to keep it out of the food supply. As long as the goal is to stop fish & birds from eating plastic I don’t care where it goes.
    Well I am lying. I care.
    Eventually all that plastic will be wanted as it can be returned to much of its original state. Last use of fossil fuel will be for aircraft & rockets.
    Keep plastic out of the oceans so the food supply is not destroyed. Segregate it if you don’t yet know how or want to make it into fuel.

    1. knowbuddhau

      It’s way too late for that, I’m afraid. You’re thinking on too large a scale. How do you propose we collect all the microplastic?


      “”The significance is that this is quite possibly widespread,” Amanda Callaghan, biological scientist at Reading and the lead study author, told AFP.

      “We were just looking at mosquitoes as an example but there are lots of insects that live in water and have the same life-cycle with larvae that eat things in water and then emerge as adults.”

  3. dcrane

    Does anyone know what China has been doing with our recyclable plastic to begin with? Was it actually being recycled?

    1. Jerri-Lynn Scofield Post author

      That I do not know. I do know China was one of the five countries McKinsey identified as together responsible for dumping half of the plastic that ends up in the oceans. That report is linked to above.

      1. Jeremy Grimm

        Thanks! I was going to ask how much plastic got “lost at sea” — but only half the plastic that ends up in the oceans is dumped by the five countries? Where does the rest come from?

        1. human

          Huge amount of left behind fishing gear. Think ocean trawlers with their large nets and long ropes.

  4. Tomonthebeach

    The US is only exporting waste to Asia if it gets there.

    If you spend a lot of time on the open ocean, as I have during my Navy career and as a recreational sailor, you regularly encounter acres of floating debris. You might conclude that these floating garbagebergs are due to ocean currents, seaswirls, and whirlpools. You will, until one day you follow a stream of crap as a cargo ship slowly dumps its load mid ocean where they think nobody will see them. It’s a big ocean. It is a lot cheaper to steam mid pacific and dump your load, return to port, pick up another & repeat; than it is to go all the way to Thailand. Think on that.

    1. The Rev Kev

      Thanks for that story. In reality, this should not be hard to stop. There should be a manifest of each ship’s cargo and if there is no corresponding paperwork for that cargo being discharged in a foreign port (and the cargo is waste) that would be the giveaway right there. At which point the nearest sub from whichever navy should be allowed to slam a coupla fish up their side to make an example of them “pour encourager les autres”. Hmmmmm, I must be reading too much Roman history as that would be Roman-style justice that.

  5. JTMcPhee

    More proof that humans suck:

    America’s National Parks Are Being Ruined by Human Poop – VICE


    Don’t recall if Wukchumni has complained about encountering this seeming violation of the “Don’t crap in your own nest” dictum in his jaunts in such beatific spots. No doubt careful accessors of the Wild Places either pack it out, or carefully and lovingly bury it a little deeper in the flesh of Mother Earth.

    Of course, like so much of what humans do, it’s not crapping in your own nest or where you eat, it’s in someone else’s place or into the Dying Commons.

    Go, Yellowstone Caldera! https://www.nationalgeographic.com/science/2018/08/news-yellowstone-supervolcano-geothermal-energy-debate-iceland-hawaii/ Maybe some bit of trash some tourist pitches into the pools feeding the geysers and tricking down into the heat below will finally cause that cataclysmic sneeze that ends the crapping and dumping and opens the niche to a less inimical Top Species…

    Or maybe it will be some earnest engineers working for energy extractors seeking alpha that drill through the last rocky ligament that restrains the Big One. Lots of scenarios, no?

  6. Jeremy Grimm

    Does recycling make any sense in our world of Neoliberal Economics and the supremacy of the Market? Maybe Neoliberal Economics and the supremacy of the Market are the problem. We are past the point where there is an economic answer. And if there were an “economic answer” I believe the consolidation of our economies, our Corporations, and Cartels, and the power reserved to the few would defeat even that “economic answer” unless it were invented in the idea-sterile boardrooms of our Corporate Overlords. We need Government of, by, and for the people — but that is so passe.

    The Market will do nothing about single use plastics. The Market will do nothing to regulate the kinds of containers used, their labels and label glues, their sizes, lids, and the formulations of glass, plastic, or paper used. Regulations, and their constraints on Corporate “free will” are necessary to craft some mitigation of the wastes we so wantonly generate. The Market does not care about Humankind and it does not even acknowledge the extinctions of the animals and plants that share this world with us. Corporate Persons do not care about Human Persons and give no consideration to the rest of creation.

    Use that plastic straw again. Provide a “bonus” drink — problem solved.

    1. Eureka Springs

      The problem certainly isn’t limited to packaging since everywhere I go plastic is the main ingredient of products. Crapification at its worst even more plastic products are made so poorly that one has to replace them constantly. So many plastic ‘goods’ could be made just a bit thicker and would last many years longer than their instantly disposable life span now. If we don’t address initial quality of products all else seems moot.

      The ‘market’ will fight that tooth and nail.

  7. knowbuddhau

    I saw that TreeHugger quote the other night. Totally agree, and don’t.

    I said as much myself some months ago: our sacrosanct modern way of life would come to a complete stop if we couldn’t pay someone to make all our wastes, liquid, septic, and solid, go to that most indispensable of all modern places, Away.

    Where would you personally put all your wastes, bodily and material, if you had to keep them within 3097.6 square feet (taking the 2006 world urban population density of 9K/sq. mile)? That’s about 50X60. The vats alone for your bodily fluids would take up most of it. And when they’re full, then what?

    It’s a thought experiment showing we aren’t other than our environment. We can’t exist without incessant intercourse with our surroundings.

    And that’s where I disagree with TreeHugger. It wasn’t being able to do that that made us what they said. We were already denatured, and disembodied, by then.

    My questing is, how’d that happen, and how do we get back, stat?

    Plastics, petrochemicals, they’re all symptoms of that hoary old battlecry you sure don’t here much of these days: “The Conquest of Nature.”

    There’s your hubris. And Nemesis is already in full career. Our effort to make things utterly anti-natural, which we only seem to quadruple down on every day, might not be as smart as we think (as I said above re: keeping plastics out of the food chain, already too late thanks to water-borne larvae eating microplastics).

    1. knowbuddhau

      Plastics are a symptom. Being anti-natural is the cause. Time for the biggest about-face ever. Or die trying.

      At current rates of greenhouse gas emissions, Earth will zoom past the 1.5C signpost around 2040, and as early as 2030.

      After only one degree of warming, the world has seen deadly storms engorged by rising seas and a crescendo of heatwaves, drought, flooding and wild fires made more intense by climate change.

      Without a radical course change, we are headed for an unliveable 3C or 4C hike.


      Where do we put things that have no place in nature? How’s Fukushima’s rogue corium doing these days, btw? Note the time scale.

      We could be at +3C by the time they figure out how to touch it and not fry even a hardened robot. How they gonna “fix” that? Survey says: still no right way to do wrong thing.

      Looks to me like there isn’t a hope in hell of large scale change happening in time.

  8. CB

    my teensy-weensy contribution is not taking bags at chkout. be surprised how much less “recyclable” plastic bags you accumulate–which mostly don’t recycle, anyway

  9. sierra7

    We humans will continue to foul out nest until the end of humans……We are just another biological species in the long term of this Mother Earth and the Cosmos………there is no escape. If we refuse to accept that premise and attempt to expand out species into “outer space” we must become “un-human” so as not to be requisite to have so much “waste”…and require almost no “food consumption”…….a “species” between human (the brain) and the rest of our “bodies”.
    The longer we attempt “market solutions” to our need (desire) to create more and more refuse the more and more and swifter will be our demise.

  10. Wukchumni

    We’re so funny, China introduces the Green Fence Law in 2013 which is a shot across the bow, but nobody really figured out they were incrementally phasing out being the end user for recyclables until it was too late, and then we try and dump it on SE Asia, please somebody take them!

    The worst thing aside from continuing to use things detrimental to this good Earth, is recycling was the one thing that Americans really thought they were doing something redeeming for all, largely w/o any return or profit from their action.

    That’s mostly a thing of the past.

  11. Chris

    If Southeast Asia refuses plastic imports, where will they go? Other developing countries? It sounds like there’s a real need for global cooperation on this issue, rather than waiting for each importing country to deflect flows to their neighbors.

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