Global Waste Trade: What is it? Why does it happen and How to solve it

Crops, commodities, oil, automobiles, or even services; these are the few common things that will pop up on our minds when we discuss international trade. But recently, there have been rising concerns about global waste trade. Global waste trade, as the name suggests, literally means the international movements (transactions) of waste. The main goal of waste trade is actually to promote circular economy practices on a global chain level, reducing the amount of waste ending up in landfills and dump sites. However in its actual practice, it is often done illegally, many developed nations pay to dump waste in developing countries to ‘score’ better in sustainability and waste management. So, what defines as waste trade? Where do waste trade occur? Why is it important and what can the international community do better to address this issue as efforts to combat climate change? This piece will further discuss the aforementioned questions in an attempt to shed light on the matter and recommend certain measures based on the author’s understanding.

According to the 1989 Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal along with its annexes and revisions, waste is defined as the substances or objects that are disposed of, intended to be disposed of, or are required to be disposed of by national law. While the transboundary movement of waste is defined as the movement of waste between two or more national jurisdictions of a state (Basel Convention, 1989). Since its entry into force in 1992, the Basel Convention has only been signed by 53 countries out of the 190 who are party to the treaty. In short, the Basel Convention along with its annexes and latest revision, contain comprehensive regulations on the type, amount, process, and other technicalities of waste trade.

For instance, Article 4 contains the general obligations that states must comply with, among many is the responsibility to not coerce any exports of waste and the understanding that waste trade can only be done if the exporting state does not have the capability to process the waste and it is a raw material for recycling or recovery industries in the importing state. Article 6 contains the detailed provisions on the legal and right way to conduct waste trade, which among the others is that both or all parties must consent with prior notification in order for the waste shipment to be considered as legal. Furthermore, Article 9 of the convention defines illegal trade which among many, if the waste trade is being done without mutual consent of all parties involved or that it results in a deliberate disposal (dumping), it will be considered illegal.

 In the most recent report published by the World Bank, 2 billion tonnes of waste is produced by humans each year. It is projected that by 2050, the number will expand to 3.4 billion tonnes if we keep producing waste at this rate (Kaza et al., 2018) . Out of the 2 billion tonnes, 37 percent end up in landfills, 33 percent openly dumped, 19 percent recycled and composted, and 11 percent are incinerated (Kaza et al., 2018). It is interesting to note that collectively, people in high-income countries, approximately 16 percent of the global population, account for 34 percent of global waste, which translates to 544 kg of waste per capita, which is over 100 kg more than the global average (Kaza et al., 2018). Exclusively on waste dumping, developing countries are ‘destinations’ for 93 percent of all waste dumping worldwide (Kaza et al., 2018). The numbers reflect how the waste issue is similar to the climate issue, countries who are contributing less to the severing of the situation are experiencing the worst effects of it.

Countries in Asia and Southeast Asia at the top when it comes to destinations of waste exports. Ever since China banned waste imports in 2018, many countries in Southeast Asia eventually became the alternative destinations for waste shipments, mainly from EU countries and the US, nonetheless Malaysia. However, since the new provision under the Basel Convention went into force on 1 January 2021, Malaysia has returned more than 300 containers of illicit plastic waste which were either contaminated, not pre-sorted as required by the convention, or not mutually consented by the Malaysian side (Reuters, 2021). This is just a small fraction of illicit waste trade heading towards landfills in developing countries. But how did this actually happen in the first place? Why do EU member states with undeniably better capacity to process their waste domestically, resort to ship them to countries which most possibly might not have the adequate resources let alone technology to do so?

The answer to this question lies within the practices of the circular economy (CE) model in the EU. Circular economy is essentially a disruptive economic model that seeks to shift away from the linear model of production, distribution, and consumption. In CE, waste that is generated by all processes are being utilized again be it through recycling, refurbishing, reusing, and so on, all to minimize the end waste that can no longer be reused. Many believe that (illicit) waste trade occurs because of the CE model implementation in the EU (Vilella et al., 2021), however I for one, do not perceive the same narrative. I believe the underlying reason behind is the misinterpretation of CE practices itself and the lack of regulation enforcement. Provisions and regulations have been placed on the international level (Basel Convention) and in some cases regional level (EU Waste Shipment Regulation), but enforcement of the regulations are lacking, there are still contaminated, unsorted waste being shipped from EU countries to the rest of the world, often times without the recipients’ consent (Vilella et al., 2021). EU member states are greenwashing their domestic waste management by shipping (dumping) them to other countries. It is a very simple equation, the more waste they ship abroad, the less waste they need to handle, hence, better numbers on paper.

To entirely address this issue, we do not need more redundant summits, cooperation, or groupings. The author believes that the currently existing framework is more than sufficient to solve the matter at hand. First, the enforcement of regulations and provisions must be further upheld to prevent illicit waste trade mainly from the Global North to the Global South. Stricter monitoring on each country’s related agencies is highly recommended to ensure all regulations are being followed. Second, is to in a way, reapproach CE implementation and guarantee that the shipment of waste is either to be utilized as raw materials or managed in an environmentally sound manner, as long as it does not end up in landfills and dumpsites. The global trade of waste needs to be win-win in all the parties involved, one (country) must not take advantage of others (countries) in solving their waste problems.

Leonard Patrick Bromokusumo
Leonard Patrick Bromokusumo
Leonard Patrick Bromokusumo is a third-year International Relations student at Universitas Gadjah Mada, Indonesia. Leon is particularly interested in a wide range of topics namely China relations, ASEAN, geopolitics, and circular economy.