- Plastics Marketplace
- Plastics Marketplace
Countries Tried to Curb Trade in Plastic Waste. The U.S. Is Shipping More.
When more than 180 nations agreed last year to place strict limits on exports of plastic waste from richer countries to poorer ones, the move was seen as a major victory in the fight against plastic pollution.
But new trade data for January, the first month that the agreement took effect, shows that American exports of plastic scrap to poorer countries have barely changed, and overall scrap plastics exports rose, which environmental watchdog groups say is evidence that exporters are ignoring the new rules.
The American companies seem to be relying on a remarkable interpretation of the new rules: Even though it’s now illegal for most countries to accept all but the purest forms of plastic scrap from the United States, there’s nothing that prevents the United States from sending the waste. The main reason: the United States is one of the few countries in the world that didn’t ratify the global ban.
“This is our first hard evidence that nobody seems to be paying attention to the international law,” said Jim Puckett, executive director of the Basel Action Network, a nonprofit group that lobbies against the plastic waste trade. “As soon as the shipments get on the high seas, it’s considered illegal trafficking. And the rest of the world has to deal with it.”
The scrap industry says that many of the exports are quite likely compliant with the new rules and that the increase in January reflects growing global demand for plastic to recycle, and use as inputs for new products. Recent history, however, shows that a large of amount plastic scrap exported from the United States does not get recycled but ends up as waste, a reality that was the impetus for the new rules.
The new rules were adopted in 2019 by most of the world’s countries, although the United States isn’t among them, under a framework known as the Basel Convention. Underlying the change was the need to stem the flow of waste from America, and other wealthier nations, to poorer ones.
Though many American communities dutifully collect plastic for recycling, much of the scrap has been sent overseas, where it frequently ends up in landfills, or in rivers, streams and the ocean. China, which once accepted the bulk of that waste, in 2018 banned all plastic scrap shipments, declaring that it no longer wanted to be the “world’s garbage dump.”
Since then, American companies have looked to ship plastic scrap waste to countries like Malaysia and Indonesia instead. Last year, an industry group representing the world’s largest petrochemical makers lobbied for United States trade negotiators to press Kenya, one of Africa’s largest economies, to continue importing foreign plastic garbage.
But because Basel rules prohibit member nations from trading waste with countries that have not ratified the convention, the new regulations now effectively ban the trade in most kinds of plastic waste between the United States and the rest of the world.
American companies, for now, appear to have opted to continue to put their scrap onto ships out of the country at an even faster pace. And the scrap industry says that much of the plastic that was being shipped in January is considered legitimate under the Basel rules by the companies around the world that are purchasing it to use in manufacturing.
“The contention that all of these plastic scrap exports from the United States are not legitimate is factually incorrect,’’ said Adina Adler, vice president of advocacy at the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries, a trade group.
Data for January showed that exports of scrap plastic from the United States edged upward, to 48 million tons from 45 million tons the previous January. Exports to poorer nations were virtually unchanged from a year ago, totaling 25 million tons.
Advocates say that there are clear red flags in the data. Malaysia, which had signed on to Basel, remained a major destination for American scrap plastic in January.
A shipment containing bales of plastic scrap left Los Angeles on Feb. 14, for example, and is scheduled to arrive at a port outside the Malaysian capital, Kuala Lumpur, this month, according to data provided by Material Research, a Maine-based research firm. That shipment was sent by Georgia-based Sigma Recycling Inc. on a cargo ship operated by the French shipping company CMA CGM.