(31 Dec 2020 Press Release) Hong Kong as a major free port for global distribution of plastic waste was condemned by Interpol and the Environmental Network for Optimizing Regulatory Compliance on Illegal Traffic (ENFORCE), which is a working group for Basel Convention organized by UNEP for its illegal transfer of plastic waste to Southeast Asia countries. The new amendments of the Basel Convention, which will come into effect on 1 January 2021, include plastic waste trade in the Convention for the very first time. The Green Earth (TGE) urges the Environmental Protection Department (EPD) and the Customs and Excise Department to beef up their gatekeeper role, failing which Hong Kong will bear the notoriety of “a free port for plastic waste trade”.
Ray Yeung, the Campaign and Communications Manager of TGE points out that the U.S. has always been Hong Kong’s largest source of imported plastic waste. 68,000 tonnes of plastic scraps were imported from the US during the first ten months of 2020, accounting for 25% of Hong Kong’s total plastic scrap import. The US. is the only developed country which has not ratified the Convention. TGE therefore warns, “Vigilance and random inspections are required for containers coming from the US to prevent unwanted transfer of plastic waste to developing regions via Hong Kong.”
Interpol published a report in August this year titled “Strategic Analysis Report. Emerging Criminal Trends in the Global Plastic Waste Market since January 2018” in which Hong Kong is named as a one of the parties to the crime.
Hong Kong has been playing a pivotal role in global waste trade. The Report draws attention to the fact that China imported 45% of the world’s waste from 1992 to 2018. Since the import of “foreign waste” was banned from entering China in 2018, Hong Kong’s re-export volume of waste has plummeted by more than 80%. Yet, Southeast Asia and other developing economies have become the substitute dumping grounds. TGE examined the UN Comtrade database and realized that Hong Kong was the second and third largest source of plastic waste of Vietnam, Thailand and the Philippines respectively in 2019.
The report projects that the global trade value of plastic waste will increase significantly from US$34.8 billion in 2016 to more than US$50 billion in 2022. This profitable business has given rise to illegal activities in which to share a piece of the pie. In the past two years, there has been a considerable growth of illegal waste transportation which disguised wastes’ re-export locations as their places of origin. These wastes were then transported to different places in Southeast Asian regions. In 2019, for example, Malaysia imported seven containers of plastic waste, which were originally exported from Belgium but covered up as re-exports from Hong Kong.
Hong Kong-related cases were also highlighted during the ENFORCE meeting in Geneva in October 2019. It was mentioned that Romania exported 123 waste slag containers to Xiamen Port in 2016, which were then ordered by the local authorities to send back to Hong Kong; eight of these containers were subsequently transferred to Port Kelang of Malaysia, but were rejected as hazardous waste. The Malaysian Environmental authorities requested the EPD not to ship the remaining 115 containers. The relevant containers went under the supervision of the EDP and were not shipped out of Hong Kong until late August 2020.
In 2019, the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia one after another speculated that Hong Kong has shipped unwanted plastic waste to them and demanded sending back to Hong Kong. The second largest shipping company in the world, “Mediterranean Shipping” (MSC), has prohibited plastic waste containers destined for Hong Kong since June, which reflects the role of Hong Kong in waste trade. Yeung comments that the main reason for exporting plastic waste from developed countries to developing regions is for cheap disposal or burning. The cost is much lower than that of disposal at home. However, this beggar-thy-neighbour approach has severely damaged the environment and public health. These countries exploit Hong Kong’s loopholes and use it as “white gloves.” Yeung remarks, “Hong Kong is not the major source of plastic waste in the globe. Yet, its failure to monitor and halt waste trade leads to repeated condemnations from the global community.”
To combat the problem, the Basel Convention was ratified by 180 countries around the world last year aimed to put plastic waste under control, and it will be implemented on January 1, 2021. The EPD has then formulated the “Guidelines and References for Waste Plastics Import and Export Control “, which requires proper declaration for import or re-export of regulated waste plastics.
Yeung describes the Guidelines as “better late than never”, “The new guidelines will help identify the import destinations, and if the imported goods are found to be under-regulated, it will be returned immediately.” However, TGE is worried that the Guidelines may not be able to prevent the US from using Hong Kong for re-export of waste. Authorities are urged to be vigilant in investigating containers coming from the US; should violations be found, the government should immediately make public announcements to deter developed countries from engaging in unscrupulous waste trade.
Ray Yeung, Campaign and Communications Manager of The Green Earth
Edwin Lau Che-feng, Founder and Executive Director of The Green Earth