Plastic waste export destinations South Korea 2019

Vietnam was the top destination for plastic waste exported from South Korea in 2019, with over thirteen thousand tons shipped over the course of the year. Malaysia came in second place, with almost nine thousand tons. China was the world’s trash importers for years, however, the Chinese government announced they would henceforth only permit the import of pure plastic waste, meaning contaminated plastic waste containing other materials would be banned.

Cheaper to export plastic waste

Countries import plastic waste because they get paid for it, but why do countries export plastic waste? Because it is not cost-effective to recycle all that trash themselves. Korean citizens do a decent job separating plastics from other waste, but waste management companies lack the money or manpower to continue the necessary task of separating plastics by material or color. In fact, only 23 percent of plastic waste in Korea is actually recycled, with 40 percent being used as fuel and the rest being disposed of. The problem is that plastic waste incineration centers or landfills are not welcomed either by the public or politicians. Not to mention, recycling at home is more expensive than selling trash. Hence, the waste is exported where it is out of sight, out of mind, and someone else’s problem.

Refusing to take in plastic waste

China’s refusal to take in plastic waste, Korea and top exporters such as the European Union and the United States have been forced to turn to other countries. Specifically, Southeast Asian countries such as Vietnam, Malaysia, Thailand, and even Taiwan and Poland. Waste exporting countries take advantage of the lax regulations and environmental restrictions in importing countries to dispose of their trash. For example, incinerating plastic waste releases toxic gases into the air, and in many cases, contaminated plastic is illegally dumped in rivers and streets. Waste importers are imposing stricter regulations to control the inflow of trash, and in some cases sent back plastic waste so contaminated it was unrecyclable. This has left some countries like Canada or Britain in crisis as they scramble to figure out what to do with the tons of trash coming back.

Leading destinations of plastic waste exported from South Korea in 2019, based on export volume

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Release date

February 2020


South Korea

Survey time period


Special properties

HS code: 3915

Supplementary notes

Released date is the date of access.

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Statistics on "Plastic waste in South Korea"

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