Latin America Calls for U.S. to Reduce its Plastic Waste Exports to the Region

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

We’re number one!

The U.S. remains the world’s largest plastic waste exporter – even though waste exports have declined significantly since China decided in 2018 not to continue to be the world’s dumping ground for plastic waste. Other countries – Vietnam, Thailand – have taken up some of the slack.

In fact, the U.S. continues to generate more plastic waste exports than all other EU countries combined.

The Guardian reported Friday that Latin America environmental organizations have called for the U.S. to curb its plastic waste exports to the region, after a report conducted by the Last Beach Cleanup, a California-based environmental advocacy group, found that plastic waste exports from the U.S. had doubled to some Latin American countries during the first seven months of 2020 (see Latin America urges US to reduce plastic waste exports to region).

According to the Guardian:

More than 75% of imports to the region arrive in Mexico, which received more than 32,650 tons (29,620 metric tonnes) of plastic waste from the US between January and August 2020. El Salvador was second, with 4,054 tons, and Ecuador third, with 3,665 tons, according to research carried out by the Last Beach Cleanup, an environmental advocacy group based in California.

While hazardous waste imports are subject to tariffs and restrictions, they are seldom enforced and plastic waste intended for recycling – which until January this year was not considered hazardous under international law – that enters importing countries can often end up as landfill, according to a researchers with the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (Gaia).

A Gaia report published in July also predicted further growth in the plastic waste sector in Latin America due to companies in the US and China investing in factories and recycling plants across the region to process the US plastic exports.

Dumping plastic in developing countries is just a modern day manifestation of a colonialist attitude. Per the Guardian:

Some view the practice as a form of environmental colonialism. “The cross-border plastic waste trade is perhaps one of the most nefarious expressions of the commercialisation of common goods and the colonial occupation of territories of the geopolitical south to turn them into sacrifice zones,” said Fernanda Solíz, the health area director at the Simón Bolívar University in Ecuador.

“Latin America and the Caribbean are not the back yards of the United States,” Soliz said. “We are sovereign territories, and we demand the respect of the rights of nature and our peoples.”

Other developed countries have tried to stem plastics waste exports, and in fact, produced an international agreement to that effect. Alas, the United States  – the biggest plastics transgressor – opted not to sign on to that agreement. According to the Guardian:

Most of the world’s countries agreed in May 2019 to stem the flow of plastic waste from the developed nations of the global north into the poorer ones of the global south. Known as the plastics amendment to the Basel Convention, the agreement prohibited the export of plastic waste from private entities in the US to those in developing nations without the permission of local governments.

But critically, the US did not ratify the agreement, and has been accused of continuing to funnel its waste into countries around the world, including in Africa, south-east Asia, and Latin America.

“Regional governments fail in two aspects: the first is inspections at customs because we don’t really know what enters the country under the guise of recycling, and they also fail in their commitments with international agreements such as the Basel convention.” said Camila Aguilera, a spokesperson for Gaia. “And here it is important to see what comes under the types of recycling because recycling is seen as a good thing.”

“Countries in the global north see recycling as something to be proud of, forgetting about redesigning the products and reducing waste,” said Aguilera. “It’s very difficult for governments to treat plastic like toxic waste, but that’s what it is.”

I’m sorry to see the continued emphasis on recycling extended to Latin America, by US. and Chinese companies, which are promoting recycling as a means for dealing with waste generated in the U.S. At best, recycling is a half-measure. The world doesn’t need more voices singing in the recycling choir.  Instead, it’s necessary to reduce plastics production. Full stop. Generating plastics in the first instance carries an environemenral cost. Far better to stop creating plastics rather then worrying about how to dispose of waste once created.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email


  1. ambrit

    This is another “shovel ready” infrastructure job for Americans. From what I have read, ‘outsourcing’ the plastic waste is “cheaper” for corporations and municipalities. Setting up recycling and repurposing factories in America is easily done. All it requires is the political will to implement. (Now, as to the question of the provision of “scarce” resources goes…)
    As usual, the problem is not technological, but political.

  2. bassmule

    “…they are seldom enforced…” Golly, why do you suppose that is? I thought every Administration was Big On Law Enforcement (for certain classes, of course)? Especially at The Border? (Don WInslow must be sitting somewhere, shaking his head. Drug wars in tourist towns, plastic waste slipping south…)

  3. LawnDart

    …because recycling is seen as a good thing…. It’s very difficult for governments to treat plastic like toxic waste, but that’s what it is.

    Send it back to the source– send it home to Pittsburgh.

    There’s still plenty of brownfields along the rivers of the city that could be used for recycling and reprocessing centers, and the rivers themselves are perfect for transporting the products. It will create a lot of local, American jobs.

    Where plastic s#!t is born:

    The plant will upgrade locally-produced ethane from shale gas producers, Marcellus and Utica, to produce 1.6 million tons of polyethylene each year. Polyethylene is used in many everyday products, from food packaging and automotive components to industrial chemicals and other consumer goods.

  4. The Rev Kev

    The problem is that even if export of plastic waste was stopped to South America, Africa, Asia, etc. so that it all stayed in the US, then what would happen is that it would be funneled to those States that had the weakest pollution laws with the local politicians saying that they are creating ‘jawbs’ and it is good for the local economy. The only real solution is stop it at its source as in drying up the demand for plastics and shrink the market for it so that plastic wastage is also reduced.

    1. Jerri-Lynn Scofield Post author

      We’re banging on the same drum, Rev. Recycling isn’t any real solution. Reducing demand for – and therefore production of – plastics is.

  5. upstater

    We can agree that plastics production should be curtailed, but with fracking not going away and the US set to become the largest LNG exporter in the world, displacing Qatar and Australia, all those Natural Gas Liquids have got to go somewhere, right?


    FG LA LLC (FG) has received the permits needed to begin the construction phase of The Sunshine Project and activities at the site are underway for the estimated $9.4 billion industrial complex to be located on the west bank in St. James Parish, Louisiana. The industrial complex will produce polyethylene, polypropylene, polymer and ethylene glycol that are found in everyday products that help make our lives safer, healthier, cleaner and more efficient.

    Pennsylvania Petrochemicals Complex

    Shell is constructing the Pennsylvania Petrochemicals Complex, a major petrochemicals plant that will process ethane from shale gas. In November 2017, Shell announced the completion of the site’s early works programme and the beginning of the main construction phase.

    BTW, all sorts of corporate welfare handouts going to these projects. The Shell project will fill 75 railroad cars with plastic pellets for decades. The Formosa project is even larger.

    Maybe Brandon will fix this with the help of President Manchin?

  6. Paul Whittaker

    Most of the waste is food related small but lots of it. How about Vinyl siding on houses, even the new off cuts go into landfill. The Deck chairs which look like wood, all the plastic sheds and storage lockers. Each spring you can see numerous tempo,garages caved in by the snow load. all of the above used to be made of real wood cared for last decades and then can be burnt, or set aside to rot down.

  7. cnchal

    Meanwhile, supply chain issues are of some priority, with all those super sized boats off the coast and doing a slow cruise across the Pacific towards California, and what exactly is being delivered?

    Made in China = plastic crap we can’t live without . . . and China wants nothing to do with the garbage it exports in the guise of finished goods and refuses the returns.

    No moar plastics, eh? If plastic production gets shut down here, expect Chinese production to triple and send even moar of their crap here, so be careful of what you wish for.

  8. politicaleconomist

    The US is simply optimizing social welfare just as L Summers suggested 30 years ago. “ I think the economic logic behind dumping a load of toxic waste in the lowest wage country is impeccable and we should face up to that.”

  9. Hayek's Heelbiter

    The technology is there.

    Pyrolysis is a common technique used to convert plastic waste into energy, in the form of solid, liquid and gaseous fuels. Pyrolysis is the thermal degradation of plastic waste at different temperatures (300–900°C), in the absence of oxygen, to produced liquid oil

    But not the political will.
    Anecdotally, Big Oi will suppress any attempt by municipalities to install pyrolysis units.

  10. Dave in Austin

    To bring this closer to home, I live in Austin which has a huge recycling program. The recyling containers are collected and go to a landfill with few employees. Then the material gets on trucks… and vanishes, going to Mexico I assume.

    US labor is expensive and the hand seperation of the recycled material would cost 10 x what it will cost in, for example, Mexico. So I suspect our “ecologically conscious” metropolis gets to both feel good (We recycle) and, I believe, avoid the cost by shipping the material to the Third World.

    Limiting the waste stream is a good idea, but Americans want the free lunch of exporting trash. Real recycling might be based on “Ship it to Mexico for sorting” followed by reexporting the seperated material (minus the usable cardboard, aluminum, copper and newspaper) back to the US. Good idea? Yes. Likely to happen? No.

  11. Rod

    Finally, a real purpose for the World to use Sanctions–against my country for being the biggest Pusher for the FF Dealers around the world.

    I’m at the point of wanting it to be visible to every driving American by being ‘Stored’ visibly along every Expressway On/Exit Ramp/every Municiple Parking Lot/every Courthouse Square or Lawn and in every State Capitals Public Areas.
    On every devil strip in every city.
    Bailed and Messy right in our faces.
    Massive Piles at every Local Coke and Pepsi Bottler to greet the Executives and Workers every day.
    Lining the traffic corriders to every Mega Complex being developed to produce the Stock and Stuff.
    Every Entrance to every National Park, State Park, Historical Park and Natural Area.

    So umbiquitous that you cannot avert your eyes without seeing another pile–until a national and rightous EPR Law is fully adopted, implemented, and functioning.

  12. KFritz

    There is, ostensibly, a viable technology to recycle almost any plastic. The linking tool doesn’t work with my setup, so readers can google “Mura Technologies” for the company that’s building recycling plants to read about its science (not in any detail). Google “David Attenborough plastic recycling” to read about Sir David’s support for the process and the company. If I understand the process, it is extremely energy intensive, but it almost certainly uses less energy that the production of new plastics.

    Of course, this technology can’t address the collective intention necessary to to stop the blight of plastic pollution.

  13. drumlin woodchuckles

    Are these Latin American nations part of the WTO? As in . . . . are they members?

    If they are, does the WTO have rules against banning plastic-junk imports into your country? If you are a member of the WTO?

    China is a member of the WTO. Does China have the legal right to decline American plastic junk? If it does, then don’t the Latin American nations have the same legal right?

Comments are closed.