Rich countries export twice as much plastic waste to developing countries as previously thought

High-income countries have long been sending their rubbish abroad to be dumped or recycled – and an independent team of experts says they’re flooding the developing world with far more plastic than previously thought.

According to a new analysis released last week, the United Nations’ global waste trade data doesn’t account for “hidden” plastics in textiles, contaminated bales of paper and other categories, leading to a dramatic annual underestimate of 1.8 million tonnes of the amount Plastic making its way from the European Union, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States to poor countries. The authors highlight the public health and environmental risks posed by plastic exports in developing countries, where importers often landfill or incinerate unmanageable amounts of plastic waste.

“Toxic chemicals from these plastics are poisoning communities,” said Therese Karlsson, scientific and technical advisor to the nonprofit International Pollutant Elimination Network (IPEN). IPEN helped coordinate the analysis along with an international team of researchers from Sweden, Turkey and the US

Many estimates of the volume of plastic waste trade use a UN database that tracks different types of products through a “harmonized commodity description and coding system” that assigns each product category a code beginning with the letters HS. HS 3915 – “Waste, Chips and Scrap” of Plastics – is often adopted by researchers and policy makers as a designation for the total volume of plastics traded worldwide. But the new analysis argues that this is just “the tip of the plastic waste iceberg,” as HS 3915 overlooks large amounts of plastic found in other product categories.

Discarded clothing, for example, can be recorded as HS 5505 and not counted as plastic waste, even though 60 to 70 percent of all textiles consist of some type of plastic. And another category called HS 6309 – used clothing and accessories – is considered by the UN to be reusable or recycled and therefore not considered waste at all, although an estimated 40 percent of this exported clothing is considered irrecyclable and ends up in landfills.

Plastic contamination in bales of paper — the huge stacks of unsorted paper that are shipped abroad for recycling — also tends to be overlooked in international plastic waste trade estimates, even though these bales can contain 5 to 30 percent plastic that needs to be discarded.

Just considering plastics from these two product categories alone increases plastic waste exports from all analyzed regions by up to 1.8 million tons per year – 1.3 million from paper bales and half a million from textiles. That’s more than double the plastic counted when just “plastic waste, shreds and scrap” are analyzed.

Additional product categories such as electronics and rubber contribute even more to the global plastic waste trade, although Karlsson said a lack of data makes it difficult to quantify their exact contribution. All this plastic puts a strain on the waste management infrastructure of developing countries, resulting in large amounts of plastic waste ending up in landfills, landfills or incinerators. Burning this waste creates dangerous air pollution for surrounding communities, and landfills and landfills can leach chemicals like PCBs — a group of compounds that can cause cancer in humans — into soil and water supplies.

More than 10,000 chemicals are used in the manufacture of plastics, and a quarter of them have been labeled by researchers for their toxicity and potential to accumulate in the environment and in the human body. The report calls for more transparency from the plastics and petrochemical industries about the chemicals they incorporate into their plastic products and for regulators to require them to use fewer non-toxic chemicals.

Karlsson also called for a total ban on the global trade in plastic waste, as well as enforceable limits on the amount of plastic the world produces in the first place. “Regardless of how we manage plastic waste, we need to reduce the amount of plastic we generate,” she told Grist, “because the amount of plastic waste being produced today will never be sustainable.”

Without aggressive action to end plastic production, the world is on track to produce a total of 26 billion tons of plastic waste by 2050, most of which will be incinerated, disposed of or sent to landfill.

This story was originally published by Grist. You can subscribe to the weekly newsletter here.

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