Trash talking: The imperialism of the global waste trade  

Philippine customs official inspects trash shipment from Canada. Source: Bureau of Customs Philippines.

In the Philippines, customs officials are now taking extra care when it comes to inspecting the shipping containers that land on Manila’s ports. Inside some of the color-coded trucks are the stories of people who live halfway across the globe, remnants of their daily lives encoded in multicolored pieces of trash they’ve decided to dump in another country. 

This is a familiar trade in the ports of developing countries. Precious cargo in their case, includes newspapers, household waste, or even unused diapers from the Global North. In Malaysia, German trash fills their landfills. Multicolored pieces of plastic that brandish European brands from the United Kingdom litter the shores of Turkey, a country that is known to be Europe’s “garbage dump.” 

It’s no exaggeration to say that the Western world treats developing nations like trash, turning them into dumping grounds for their excess waste. High-income countries like the United States, members of the European Union and South Korea, are known to export thousands of shipping containers full of what they deem “recyclable waste,” preferring to outsource the processing of tons of trash to developing nations. 

‘Ecological imperialism’

The global waste trade has been dubbed as an act of “ecological imperialism,” as it portrays how the Global North treats the Global South as a literal dumping ground, with the Western world dominating developing nations through exporting their unwanted waste. 

In a 2020 study, sustainability expert Benedetta Cotta describes the global waste trade as “a new form of colonialism or ecological imperialism with Global North countries exporting waste to the South to be treated by cheap manpower and following low environmental standards.” 

The waste, often labeled as recyclable materials, are usually contaminated, and are sent to the Global South in the guise of outsourcing recycling services. Most exported waste end up in landfills, waterways, melted into plastic pellets, or incinerated due to the lack of strong implementation of environmental regulations in developing nations. 

For decades, this inequitable trade has created the illusion that developing countries have something to gain from a so-called “circular economy,” creating a false dependence and justifying the exploitative practice of making them the dumping ground of Western countries.

The Basel Convention

According to the United Nations, high-income countries generate 34 percent of the world’s waste, despite only accounting for 16 percent of the global population. 

The global waste trade is a way for developed countries to quite literally ship away their problems to another nation. Malaysian expert Dr. Helena Varkkey sums up the industry simply: “By exporting trash, rich countries put their waste out of sight and out of mind.” 

Despite this, more advocacy groups and organizations have decided to rally for global policy change and local waste import bans, along with a stronger call to hold parties accountable to the Basel Convention. 

In 1989, the United Nations Environmental Programme created the Basel Convention, a global framework that would help manage the international movement of hazardous waste. It remains to be the most comprehensive global treaty in the treatment of waste import and export, with nearly universal membership at 175 parties. 

To adapt to the new practices and threats of global waste trade, advocacy groups like Greenpeace called for the Basel Convention Ban Amendment, expanding the treaty to include a ban on exporting hazardous, mixed and recycling plastic.

Why track your trash?

For low-income countries who lack the technology and systems to dispose and manage waste safely, hazardous chemical contamination from foreign waste is bound to happen. 

Waste exports lead to environmental degradation, with mixed plastic and trash being highly contaminated. Plastic waste then ends up on coastal waters and shores, affecting marine ecosystems, biodiversity and aquatic wildlife. The chemicals from toxic waste have lasting effects on coastal communities who consume and depend on marine products for their daily sustenance and livelihood.

German trash found in Malaysia. Source: Greenpeace Media.

Incineration of the exported waste can also cause carbon dioxide emissions to rise. In developing countries, who usually dump and incinerate these waste in open landfills, chemicals can leak into soil and waterways, and affect public health.

Informal workers in the waste industry are also the most vulnerable. Waste pickers are then exposed to these foreign substances and contaminated water and land, as they sort through “recyclable materials” for scrap. 

The global waste trade disproportionately affects the already vulnerable—the already poor. The marginalized in developing nations bear the brunt of the public health hazard exported waste causes. Poor communities situated in landfills, who are usually paid to sort through these waste materials, are then exposed to the threat of diseases and illnesses, contaminated living conditions, and toxic chemicals.

Passing the burden

Exportation passes the waste burden of developed countries to developing nations. Germany, who was named the world’s top recycler in 2018 exports an average of 1 million tons of plastic waste annually. In a report from Statista, exports of recyclable waste from the European Union increased by 80 percent since 2004. In 2021, the European Union exported 40.6 million metric tons of recyclable waste to non-EU countries. 

A recently published report by Swedish nonprofit International Pollutants Elimination Network (IPEN) states that current numbers also fail to take into account illegally traded trash, and “hidden” plastics in exported textiles and contaminated plastics. The organization places the underestimate at 1.8 million metric tons, stating that “the real amount of plastics and plastic wastes, and of toxic chemicals contained in plastics and wastes that move globally via trade is likely to be even higher.” 

Waste from the Global North ends up in developing countries such as the Philippines, Indonesia, India, Thailand and Malaysia. The dumping of foreign waste adds to the perennial problem of waste management of developing countries, who already lack the resources to dispose of their own waste safely and sustainably. 

Unequal power relations

Source: EcoWaste Coalition and Philippine News Agency.

After China imposed a ban on plastic exports in 2018, most of the global waste trade ended up in countries like Vietnam, Turkey and the Philippines. 

The Global North choosing to make developing nations their dumping ground shows how the global trash trade has evolved into a type of ecological imperialism. Instead of dealing with the trash they produce in their own countries, with their own technology and resources, they ship off waste to developing nations with weaker institutions—no effective waste management systems in place and weaker implementation of environmental legislation. 

This is best evidenced in the waste dispute between Canada and the Philippines. The Philippines has continuously received aid from Canada, maintaining strong diplomatic ties over the years. Using a private company, Canada exported around 2,400 tons of waste to the Philippines with no environmental permit in 2013. The shipment, which was mislabeled as plastics for recycling, contained household waste and even used diapers. 

Choosing to take advantage of their bilateral relationship, Canada remained passive about its tons of waste. As such, 69 shipping containers full of Canadian waste ended up rotting in Philippine ports for six years. In 2016, a local court already contested the legality of the trash shipments. 

Despite diplomatic protests already being filed about the initial 105 shipping containers of trash in 2013, the 69 remaining shipping containers were only sent back in 2019. It was only after former Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte verbally lambasted Canadian officials, recalled the Philippine’s Canadian ambassador and issued a Canadian diplomatic travel ban that Canada took back its trash. 

Actions like these coming from developing nations only further highlight the unequal power relations involved in the global waste trade. The waste trade only further exacerbates inequalities between nations, as developing nations fail to take legal recourse for fear of weakening diplomatic ties, trade relations and development aid. 

Still, the urgency of the waste problem has pushed many developing countries that were turned into dumping grounds to speak up and employ local and international policies to call out wealthy nations. 

In 2020, 7,408 metric tons of illegal waste shipments were returned to South Korea from the Philippines. The waste importer failed to secure an import permit from the Philippine environmental department, and misdeclared the trash as “plastic synthetic flakes.” 

Similarly, countries like Thailand and Malaysia have also announced plans of banning the import of plastic waste. In 2021, Turkey even introduced a short-lived plastic waste imports ban, as Greenpeace investigations showed that United Kingdom’s plastic waste exports ended up on Turkey’s roads and beaches.

Resistance coming from poorer countries bearing the brunt of the consequences of the global waste trade must be put under the spotlight, as it is essential to enforce regulations. The Global North, despite being repeatedly held accountable for their waste trading, have taken to exporting their trash through unscrupulous means, making Southeast Asia a preferred destination for waste shipments.

Environmental underbelly

Despite the existence of the Basel Convention, many advocacy groups like Greenpeace Philippines and EcoWaste Coalition warned that “various other waste shipments—municipal or toxic waste, from all around the world—were regularly entering the country through both legal and illegal means.” 

The irresponsible dumping of waste by developed countries has dire and lasting consequences on the Global South. This entire system of global waste trade exploits the cheap labor and loose environmental regulations of developing countries, painting developing nations as the inconsequential dumping ground and distancing rich countries from the responsibility of their waste. 

Along with this, the world’s most powerful country, the United States has not ratified the Basel Convention. This snub from a global superpower is sending a signal to the rest of the world about their commitment to global waste management efforts and environmental practices. It gives other developed nations an excuse to continue ignoring the Basel Convention. 

Despite the ratification of the Basel Ban Amendment in 2019, real action on the ground is still needed. Waste imperialism will still continue if efforts to hold developed countries accountable become inconsistent.

Employing local environmental policies and global waste management frameworks and standards has become the Herculean task of developing nations. Resistance and protest efforts against this industry from both the public and private sector should further be amplified, such as the cases of the Philippines and other Southeast Asian nations, in order to raise awareness on the perils of global waste trade.

The global waste trade exposes the environmental underbelly of many rich countries who pretend to be at the top of their game when it comes to complying with environmental standards, but in truth, only ship away their waste problems to developing nations. 

About Inna Christine Cabel 6 Articles
Inna Christine Cabel has been writing and telling stories her whole life. After graduating with a degree in journalism, she now understands how stories can change the world. To further develop her journalistic skills and intuition, she is now pursuing a master’s degree in Global Studies at the Yonsei Graduate School of International Studies. Her interests include women’s rights, music and pop culture. She wishes she could eat the Filipino dish kare-kare every single day.

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