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Waste trade worldwide - Statistics & Facts

Every year, thousands of shipping containers filled with recyclable waste are exported by wealthy countries to developing countries. This is because it is typically cheaper to export waste rather than develop local recycling infrastructures. It also reduces landfilling and can be lucrative for importers. These waste exports have increased significantly in recent decades, with shipments of recyclable items from the European Union rising more than 70 percent since the turn of the century. However, these items are not tracked once they leave, and rather than being recycled, waste is often incinerated or dumped illegally due to poor waste infrastructures in the importing countries. Despite this, the governments of exporting countries still count these exported volumes towards national recycling rates.
While waste exports from industrialized countries to non-industrialized countries is not a new phenomenon, recent investigations have brought attention to this “out of sight, out of mind” policy of the waste trade flow and the serious environmental impacts it brings, such as marine pollution. This has culminated in calls for a total ban on waste exports, major improvements to a broken recycling system, as well as a significant reduction in plastic packaging use.

China imposes waste import ban

For more than quarter of a century, China was the main destination for the world’s waste, importing 70 percent of the world’s plastic waste at one point. But in 2017, China began restricting the importation of certain solid waste materials, and in January 2018 it imposed the “National Sword” policy which banned imports on most plastics and set strict contamination limits on recyclable materials. This caused shockwaves across the global waste industry. These restrictions saw noticeable reductions in EU plastic waste exports to China in 2017, and they following year exports had fallen to 51,000 metric tons compared to 1.4 million tons just two years prior. By 2020, the EU was shipping less than 4,000 metric tons of plastic waste to China. Waste exports from the U.S. and other major exporters like Japan and South Korea also plummeted as a result of the National Sword policy. With waste now piling up back home, exporting countries now had to look elsewhere to send their unwanted garbage, or otherwise confront the daunting task of managing this waste domestically.

New destinations for waste exports

With China no longer an option, exports to other South East Asian countries soared. Malaysia, Thailand, and Vietnam quickly became top destinations for U.S. plastic scrap exports, with Malaysia and Vietnam accounting for roughly 30 percent of U.S. scrap plastic exports in 2020. Meanwhile, Turkey became the main destination for EU waste exports, importing more than 14 million metric tons in 2020. Plastic waste exports to Turkey reached 700,000 metric tons in the same year, compared to 180,000 metric tons in 2017. UK exports of scrap plastic to Turkey also surged, rising from 80,247 metric tons to 209,642 metric tons between 2018 and 2020. This accounted for roughly 40 percent of the UK plastic waste exports that year.

Countries saying no to foreign trash

Many importing countries have become overwhelmed with waste since China imposed its ban, lacking the capacity to properly process the mountains of garbage arriving every day. This has forced governments in importing countries to start acting on foreign waste imports. Contaminated rubbish that cannot be recycled is often exported illegally in falsely labelled containers. Therefore, countries such as Malaysia have had to send back thousands of ships full of illegal rubbish back to their country of origin. In Turkey, it has also been found that plastic products imported from the EU and the UK were often dumped on beaches and roadsides or burned, despite rules outlining that plastic waste should not be exported to countries unless it is to be recycled. This led to the Turkish government announcing an import ban on most types of plastic waste in 2021. China also imposed a total ban on foreign waste imports as of January 2021. New regulations regarding plastic shipments under the Basel Convention also came into effect in 2021. Despite these new regulations, major exporters such as the U.S. – which has not joined the Basel convention - have continued to ship large volumes of waste. In January 2021 alone, the U.S. exported more than 30 million pounds of plastic scrap to Malaysia, Vietnam, and Indonesia.

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