Waste Colonialism

(10-Feb-2023 Column) The Russo-Ukrainian war has sparked a massive conflict that few could have predicted, with the frontlines not only covering the entire European Union but also extending to Southeast Asia, affecting countries such as Malaysia, Indonesia, and Vietnam…
The protagonist in the midst of the smoke and gunfire is plastic waste.
Since Putin’s military intervention in February of last year, he has countered economic sanctions by cutting off natural gas supplies, causing global energy prices to soar. Europe has been hit particularly hard by this. In October of last year, the UK raised energy costs by 80%, reaching a new high in 40 years. The mayor of London even stated that the situation was likely to result in a “national disaster.” As for Germany, electricity prices in the first half of last year increased sevenfold.
If households are struggling to bear the burden, then energy-intensive industries are even less able to cope. Because of the lack of profitability or significant dilution of profits, many plastic recycling and reprocessing plants in Europe have “surrendered” by either shutting down or going bankrupt. With the cessation of recycling facilities, plastic waste continues to accumulate daily. What should be done about it?
In 2020, the EU exported 32.7 million tonnes of waste to non-EU countries, accounting for approximately 16% of global waste trade. The latest data shows that in just October 2022, European countries exported 48,000 tonnes of relatively low-grade plastic waste to Asia through Belgium and Spain as transit points, and “dumped” it in Malaysia, Indonesia, and Vietnam. Calculated based on 18 tonnes of waste plastic per standard container, this is equivalent to 2,666 containers, and this number is likely to keep rising.
At the time of writing, the latest data from Germany in November 2022 showed that this waste-producing country exported 19,000 tonnes of waste plastic in a month, an increase of about 40% from the previous month and twice as much as in November two years ago. And this upward trend is not limited to one country, but to the whole of Europe.
Since the exported waste plastic is recyclable and provides material to low-income areas, there is no apparent problem. However, can you imagine the digestion of several Southeast Asian countries that can handle Europe’s continuously growing plastic waste? Equally important, the low-end waste products exported by Europe have low recycling value, and while they may be compliantly handled within the EU, it does not mean that they can reach the same environmental standards after being sent out, and many end up as foreign garbage, damaging the ecological environment and the health of workers in the receiving countries.
As a result, the term “waste colonialism” has emerged internationally after 2018 to describe the harm of the North to the South. The North refers to the EU/UK, the US, Japan, and others, while the South includes emerging countries in Southeast Asia and slower-developing countries in Africa.
In 2020, Interpol published the “Strategic Analysis Report: Emerging Criminal Trends in the Global Plastic Waste Market since January 2018,” which predicts that the global trade in plastic waste will increase from US$34.8 billion in 2016 to over US$50 billion in 2022, becoming a “big business” and even attracting organized crime. So plastic waste trade is no longer just an environmental challenge. Interpol’s prediction has now become a reality.
With high energy prices, the contradictions of waste trade are highlighted. The immediate priority is to stop plastic waste trade and demand that manufacturers take responsibility for reducing waste and promoting plastic-free production. Otherwise, the fate of humanity will only be tied to the same dead end, in an endless cycle of mass production, mass consumption, and mass disposal.
Having said that, it is not to say that the waste trade is heading towards a dead end, but rather to share some good news for the new year: on January 17th, the European Parliament passed a bill clearly supporting the phased ban on EU plastic waste exports to non-EU countries, closing the door to waste trade.
Finally, a crucial step has been taken.
Hahn Chu hon-keung
Director of Environmental Affairs