Every year, thousands of shipping containers filled with recyclable waste are exported, mainly 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. However, rather than being recycled, these items are often incinerated or dumped illegally due to poor waste infrastructures in the importing countries. For example, the amount of mismanaged plastic waste worldwide is forecast to double by 2060. 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 waste generation.
Plastic waste: a tale of bans and illegal shipments
Exports of plastic waste worldwide have been on a declining trend for roughly a decade. In 2021, around 4.45 million metric tons were exported worldwide, down from more than 15 million tons registered in 2010. The reduction in global plastic waste exports is in large part related to China’s “National Sword” policy. For years, China was the main destination for the world’s plastic waste, but in 2017, it began restricting the import of certain solid waste materials, coming to a full ban on most plastics a year later. At the time, Hong Kong, Japan, and the U.S. were the largest exporters of plastic waste to China. Following that ban, exporting countries had to look elsewhere to ship their unwanted residues, or otherwise confront the daunting task of managing this waste domestically.
In 2022, Sri Lanka was the largest importer of plastic waste worldwide, with China as the main country of origin. Overall, the largest waste trade flows are intraregional, with Canada and Mexico accounting for more than half of U.S. plastic waste exports and Turkey ranking as the main destination for EU waste exports. Following China’s suit, many countries, such as Malaysia, have since also severely cut back on waste imports, and had to send back thousands of ships full of illegal rubbish back to their country of origin. Contaminated rubbish that cannot be recycled is often exported illegally in falsely labelled containers. New regulations regarding plastic shipments under the Basel Convention came into effect in 2021.
Metal and electronic waste trade
Unlike plastic, metals maintain most of its properties through the recycling process, and therefore can be recycled into high quality new materials. In 2021, scrap iron, copper, and precious metals were among the top 100 internationally traded products in terms of export value. That year, exports of ferrous scrap and waste amounted to 56.6 billion U.S. dollars, while exports of copper stood above 30 billion dollars. The U.S. was by far the leading exporter of scraps of both these metals, while Turkey and China were the main destinations or iron and copper scrap, respectively.
Electronic waste is one of the fastest-growing waste streams and is also a valuable source of metals for reuse. In 2019, electronic waste exports worldwide were estimated at more than five million tons. Asia was the main exporter and importer of e-waste that year. Properly estimating and tracking electronic waste trade has been a challenge for years, due to limited and unharmonized global data. New codes added in an update of the Harmonized System in 2022 are one step toward the better monitoring of e-waste flow around the globe.
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Research lead covering environment and sustainability