Waste from rich countries – often intended for recycling – is harming the environment and the health of citizens in poorer nations, where it is often just dumped.

“Where there’s muck there’s brass” is an old British saying. It means you can always make money out of waste. 

It doesn’t mean solving the waste problem. And that’s why millions of tons of the developed world’s waste per year is ending up in the global South, polluting watercourses and the environment, and endangering people’s health.

Because it’s often cheaper for rich companies to export the waste than it is to treat on their own doorstep. 

Sacrifice zones

Peter Newell, a professor of development studies, has argued that “environmental inequality reinforces and, at the same time reflects, other forms of hierarchy and exploitation along lines of class, race and gender.” 

It’s not just a #BlackLivesMatter issue, it’s about equality too.

The perception of these polluters is that some parts of the world, and therefore some lives, are worth less. These parts of the world are what have been called environmental sacrifice zones.

Sacrifice zones are the places that are allowed to suffer environmental degradation and destruction so other places don’t have to clean up their act.

These exist not just in the US, where the term originated, but all over the world – and not just to do with waste disposal, but with resource extraction and industrial processes. 

The inhabitants of these zones are, logically, sacrifice people: people whose health doesn’t matter as long as richer countries can continue with wasteful consumption. 

“Wasteful” literally meaning buying stuff to throw away.

The waste sacrifice zones

More than two billion tonnes of non-hazardous waste is now generated in the world each year, an amount projected to increase by 19 per cent in Global North countries and by more than 40 per cent in Global South countries by 2050.

Much of the waste imported into the South, e-waste in particular, is treated by the informal recycling sector in which its treatment processes often disregard environmental health standards. 

Without legal consequences, people burn unsorted waste on open land, dump it, and mishandle heavy metals after extracting valuable metals. All of this results in air, water, and soil pollution, as well as poor health.

Besides these effects, according to the UN, plastic waste kills up to one million seabirds, 100,000 sea mammals, marine turtles and countless fish each year. 

Where does the waste go?

Much used to go to China, but it banned plastic waste imports in January 2018, which threw the global waste trade industry into chaos as the developed world scrambled to find new waste dumping sites. 

Out of sight out of mind, much of it now ends up in South Asian and Southeast Asian states like Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam and India. 

Imported plastic is seen discarded at an illegal recycling site that was recently shut down by government authorities in Kuala Langat, Malaysia © GAIA/CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 / Adam Dean / Greenpeace UK.

Waste from Europe often finds its way to Poland and Turkey, which has this week been exposed as “Europe’s garbage dump”.

A Tesco wrapper found among plastic waste dumped and burned in Adana province, Turkey. Photograph: Caner Ozkan/Greenpeace.

Despite what the UK government would have its citizens think, less than 10 per cent of plastic recycling is actually recycled in the UK, according to a new Greenpeace exposé. 

The rest is sent overseas where it’s often burned or dumped, fuelling health and wildlife emergencies because often these countries, Turkey in particular, lack the necessary infrastructure evening to process their own waste let alone anything imported. 

The UK exported 688,000 tonnes of discarded plastic packaging in 2020. Just 486,000 tonnes were recycled in UK.

Incineration

Even back home, much waste ends up in incinerators, giant furnaces that may provide heating and electricity, but also give locals air pollution, noise, smells, litter and traffic as waste is trucked in and smoke pours from the chimneys. Incinerators emit more CO2 than a typical gas-fired power station.

This is why they are often located near to less well-off areas. You won’t find them near where the wealthy live. Yet they are now being recommended by some governments as part of the shift to the low waste circular economy.

Greenpeace released this week the following video to highlight the problem in the UK:

Just saying no

In some cases countries are fighting back.

The global waste trade led mainland China and Hong Kong to just say no to taking any more in 2018. 

Malaysia recently sent back 300 containers of waste to several countries. 

In 2019, the Philippines also sent back waste to Canada after over five years of calls from civil society organizations. 

Electronic waste

Trade has shifted towards extracting resources from waste as recyclable components and used goods as part of the move to the so-called circular economy. 

This could create income-generating opportunities and reduce the environmental burdens of waste trade from Global North to Global South countries if carried out in the originating countries. 

But just as the rush to “net zero” is prompting scepticism that it’s a fig-leaf for not taking real action to curb emissions, with E-waste, the US Environmental Protection Agency documents that e-waste causes “problems with open-air burning and acid baths being used to recover valuable materials from electronic components, which expose workers to harmful substances… toxic materials leaching into the environment,” which “expose workers to high levels of contaminants such as lead, mercury, cadmium and arsenic, which can lead to irreversible health effects, including cancers, miscarriages, neurological damage and diminished IQs.”

Solutions to waste problems

The solutions to these problems lie with manufacturers and retailers, to minimise plastic packaging and to produce goods that can be easily dissembled or reclaimed and remanufactured; with governments, to provide more domestic waste processing facilities; and with consumers, to be smarter in what they choose to purchase and discard.

According to Greenpeace UK, “The problem isn’t that people aren’t recycling enough. The problem is that there is still far too much throwaway plastic being produced”.

Greenpeace Malaysia also recommends the following:

  • Investigation of the waste industry with a focus on possible corrupt, fraudulent and illegal practices by exporting countries and local unlicensed operators.
  • Banning unnecessary single-use plastic production by multinationals in phases, and developing alternatives based on systems of refill and reuse, while increasing the recycling rate.
  • Enforcing Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) by requiring waste operators to track products from cradle to grave and conduct due diligence prior to the exportation of plastic waste in order to ensure and strengthen the transparency of plastic usage, disposal and recycling systems globally.
  • A global agreement to combat the flood of waste, especially plastic and hazardous waste, from exporting countries.

David Thorpe is the author of‘One Planet’ Cities: Sustaining Humanity within Planetary Limitsand Director of the One Planet Centre Community Interest Company in the UK.

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