UNA-NCA Snapshots
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UNA-NCA Snapshots

U.S. Plastic Pollution & Waste Export

By Grace O’Neill, UNA-NCA Advocacy Fellow

The U.S. has a plastic problem; it is wreaking havoc far beyond our borders, leaving a lasting impact on the global community. Across the world, developing nations are attempting to handle vast amounts of imported plastic waste. Engulfed in an issue they neither created nor encouraged, developing nations now face waste mismanagement, economic downturn, and health risks associated with plastic waste. Without strict accountability and a unified network to stand up against the imbalanced international trade of plastic waste, developing nations will continue to endure and suffer the impact of powerful and Western countries’ exuberant plastic consumption.

In 2016, the United States generated 42 million metric tons of plastic waste — 286 pounds per person — totaling more than any other country in the world. Furthermore, the U.S. accounted for only 4% of the global population in 2016, yet generated 17% of all plastic waste. As the largest producer of plastic with an outdated waste management system unable to process this vast amount of material, the United States shipped about 7 million tons of plastic to China and more than half of all plastics collected for recycling (1.99 million metric tons out of 3.91 million metric tons collected) abroad to countries such as Malaysia, Taiwan, Vietnam, and India rather than managing it in domestic facilities. With China enacting the National Sword policy in 2018, restricting plastic waste imports to protect their environment and expand their own domestic recycling capacity, the U.S. has now been forced to reconfigure 70% of their plastic exports, which have now have been diverted to other countries. Before this decision, China had imported about 45% of all internationally traded plastic waste since 1992. Since this change, the newest hotspots for handling U.S. plastic recycling are some of the world’s poorest countries, including Bangladesh, Laos, Ethiopia, and Senegal, which offer cheap labor and limited environmental regulation.

Overwhelm-Induced Mismanagement and Mishandling

Developing nations are floundering under the sheer weight of the United States’ plastic production. In 2016, around 88% of U.S. exports went to countries struggling to manage, recycle, and dispose of plastics effectively; in Turkey, the influx of foreign shipments of plastic waste has disrupted the country’s attempts to handle domestic plastics. When an overwhelming amount of plastic is no longer efficiently being processed and sorted, the consequences can be dire; in the Pasig River in Manila, a shortage of landfill space and the influx of waste has created a crisis resulting in the tributary being declared biologically dead. Moreover, about 68,000 containers of plastic are exported from the U.S. to developing nations, who mismanage over 70% of their own locally generated plastic waste. Mismanaged waste is defined as “waste that does not make its way to proper receptacles,” instead finding its way into water streams or becoming litter on streets. In 2016 alone, the U.S. sent contaminated plastic — which is when non-recyclable material or garbage mixes within the recycling system — in shipping containers to 89 countries.

Due to limited financial resources, the governments of developing nations are often unable to provide the infrastructure necessary to implement proper maintenance and management of waste, such as “sufficient roadways for waste collection, trash trucks, a paid labor force, and safe and extensive landfills.” Without the capital to create effective facilities, countries have no other choice but to choose the cheapest option to deal with plastic waste, leading to open dumping and open burning serving as the main practices for waste treatment and disposal systems. Specifically, open dumping leads to water pollution due to hazardous leachate mismanagement and uncontrolled overflow in materials such as plastic waste. Leachate mismanagement occurs when rain water filters through plastics found in open dumping sites, such landfills, where the liquid then comes into contact with and draws out chemicals from the waste. Finally, this pollutant will finally trickle into a river or stream and ultimately contaminate larger bodies of water.

Economic Downfalls

Plastic waste has a significant toll on the economy due to illegitimate and unsafe processes. Without adequate and safe facilities, the United States’ plastic waste shipments sent to the developing world are consistently mishandled through the act of burning, burying, or abandoning the material, with plastic sequentially making its way into overseas landfills, the ocean, agricultural land, and backyards. With this mismanagement and how far plastic can spread when mistreated, the pollution of the sea leaves direct consequences on a country’s economy.

Plastic pollution presents a significant threat to the livelihoods of those working in tourism. Communities dependent on coral reef-related tourism are especially vulnerable to plastic pollution. According to the United Nations Environment Programme, at least 275 million people depend directly on reefs to make a living. The Ocean Conservancy estimates 1 million metric tons of US-generated plastic waste ends up polluting the environment beyond its own borders. For example, coastal tourism in developing countries is affected because tourists avoid beaches with high concentrations of plastic litter, and the economic cost is estimated at $13 billion per year. In Vietnam, visitors travel to see beautiful coastlines and clean beaches, and tourism contributes to over 6% of the nation’s GDP every year, playing a major role in furthering economic development.

On land, plastic pollution can travel if it is not recycled correctly, causing the material to impact the agricultural industry negatively. Countries such as Bangladesh rely heavily on agriculture, where about 50% of the population are employed in the industry and over 70% of the country’s land is dedicated to growing crops. One problem farmers face is animals unable to swallow plastic which does not decompose in their digestive tracts, leading to bloating, disease, and death due to starvation. Ranging farm animals, such as cows and pigs, can mistake plastic for food when it is littered near fields and waterways. Additionally, it is legal during the recycling process for packaged waste food to be turned into animal feed, sequentially resulting in small pieces of plastic mixed into the feed. Developing nations, including Bangladesh, will encounter more instability in the agriculture industry if plastic continues to dominate and cause illness in their livestock. Additionally, a decrease in production of meats and crops would decrease job security, leaving many without a means of living.

Health Risks

The United States’ exporting and dumping of plastic waste directly affects the safety and well-being of those living in developing countries. While attempting to alleviate a plastic problem they did not produce nor encourage, low-income nations are suffering the most under the consequences of U.S. policy.

In developing countries, 400,000 to 1 million people die each year because of diseases related to mismanaged waste. Plastic blocks waterways and drains, causing flooding, which may result in waterborne diseases and death by drowning. Additionally, the landfills made up of plastic are a breeding ground for disease-carrying flies, mosquitos and vermin– including typhoid fever, tuberculosis, rabies, and plague. Plastic also increases the incidence of diarrhoeal disease for those living among mismanaged waste, the second leading cause of death in children under five years old.

The burning of plastic and inhalation of released pollutants can cause an array of health risks, including breathing problems for those living near facilities. When openly burnt, plastic releases pollutants — including hydrochloric acid, sulfur dioxide, dioxins and heavy metals — that increase risk of heart disease, respiratory ailments, skin and eye diseases, nausea and headaches, and damage to the reproductive and nervous systems. Regular exposure endured by workers and nearby residents to toxic substances can leave lasting effects such as developmental disorders, endocrine disruption, and cancer.

Plastic can also affect one’s most basic needs: food and water. The presence of plastic in seafood has led to worries surrounding chemical bio-accumulation, where fish and other marine life swallow the material, ultimately entering the food chain. Plastic in water and on land disintegrates into tiny pieces known as microplastic which then enters the food chain and is ingested by humans. Microplastic contamination appears in tap water, bottled water, and sea salts across a number of countries.

Exploitation & Responsibility

About 94% of Americans support the concept of recycling, yet 22% of Americans believe they do not have enough information regarding recycling, ultimately leading many to be unaware of the complex and disturbing journey their plastic takes once leaving their trash bins. The international recycling business is, as recycling advisory board member and professor at the University of South Carolina Andrew Spicer says, a “long, dirty market that allows some companies to take advantage of a world without rules” that is ultimately being enabled by countries such as the United States. As a key player in plastic pollution and exportation, the U.S. must acknowledge its involvement and significance on an international level. As Senior Director of Ocean Conservancy’s Trash Free Seas program Nick Mallos stated, “The United States generates the most plastic waste of any other country in the world, but rather than looking the problem in the eye, [the U.S.] have outsourced it to developing countries and become a top contributor to the ocean plastics crisis.” While U.S. policymakers and media sources blame Asian countries for the immense plastic pollution in the world, it is its own waste that is contributing largely to this overflow and suffocating amount of plastic waste.

Without considering the impact and damage of plastic waste production, the U.S. encourages taking advantage of low-income countries through the act of dumping their plastic waste rather than using domestic waste facilities. More often than not, these countries are set up to fail because the plastics they receive are not recyclable- without possible alternatives, these plastics ultimately harm and disturb the environment and the lives of those inhabiting the country. A mere 9% of all plastic produced has ever been recycled, with 12% having been incinerated, while the 79% leftover reaches dumping sites, oceans, and landfills. Essentially, the US is both the biggest consumer and polluter, as the nation exports its waste to other countries that are incapable of processing it in a non harmful way.

With the amendments made to the Basel Convention, an international treaty enacted in 1989 as a response to the import of hazardous waste into Africa and developing nations, stringent rules have been imposed to control “mixed” and “dirty” plastics sent to 187 countries. However, the U.S., along with only eight other nations, has not agreed to this treaty. Unlike most Western countries, including the United Kingdom and France, by not being a party to the Convention the U.S. offers a clear stance on protecting human health and the environment against contaminated and hazardous plastic waste. The decision not to sign the amendment illustrates the lack of interest in assisting developing nations’ plastic import issue. The United States’ argument and justification for not ratifying the Convention is due to the nation not “having sufficient domestic statutory authority to implement all of its provisions.” Instead, the U.S. continues exploiting these areas of the globe through the dumping of plastic rather than working with the international community for a more equitable and safe world.

Few Western countries are taking accountability for their burdensome plastic waste and its impact on developing nations. Germany, however, now recognizes its role in dumping plastic as being “an abuse” towards developing nations; government officials are now attempting to deal with the issue. In March of 2021, at an UN-based international ministerial conference, State Secretary at the German Ministry for Environment, Nature Conservation, and Nuclear Safety Jochen Flasbarth called for a more robust and global approach to plastic pollution that would put into place a new agreement regarding plastics on the international scale. Additionally, in 2019, Germany and 186 other countries agreed to amend the Basel Convention of 1989 “to include plastic waste in a legally binding framework that will make global trade in plastic waste more transparent and better regulated.” By looking to countries like Germany, the U.S. can observe how other nations interact with their plastic waste and correct their past wrongdoings.

Possible Alternatives and Next Steps For Change

The United States is in the early stages of addressing its plastic pollution and finding new ways to effectively deal with the overwhelm of waste within our borders rather than across the globe. China’s National Sword ban on international plastic imports has forced the recycling industry to adapt by finding new ways to process and get rid of plastic waste– mainly through channeling this dumping into low-income countries. Since 1992, the U.S. offshored a majority of its plastic waste to China, which weakened and stunted the capability of the United States’ domestic facilities; however, China’s policy shift in 2018 has forced the U.S. to look towards rebuilding its infrastructure regarding waste management. Since then, organizations such as the U.S. EPA are becoming more involved in identifying solutions in order to support domestic recycling. For example, while the EPA usually leaves recycling actions to local governments, the government agency launched its first recycling summit in 2018.

There are a multitude of methods and opportunities for a more modern waste management system in the U.S. to alleviate the nation’s plastic problem. Inundated with an exorbitant quantity of plastic, the U.S. must introduce a market demand for recycled plastic products in order to support a circular economy and pay for infrastructure improvements. A “circular economy” would eliminate waste, produce new benefits, and decrease the excessive amounts of new plastic being generated every year. This change can occur if plastic is adequately recycled and then, instead of creating new plastic, the recycled plastic material is used again and again in products. To make a circular economy attainable, the U.S. needs to funnel these recycled products into the marketplace and assist in creating a demand that is higher than new plastic. One way to do this is through financial bonus systems, in which the government can aid the use of recyclates and remove subsidies for the use of new plastic materials. Additionally, applied tax benefits on items containing recyclates can be beneficial. These government implementations would support the reusing of plastic by making it more economically attractive. Lastly, The implementation of pay-as-you-throw programs in towns and cities have also been quite effective in creating direct economic incentives to recycle more as well as limit the production of waste.

It has historically been cheaper for wealthy countries to export plastic garbage across the globe to be “recycled” in developing countries rather than processing and handling the waste domestically. The Closed Loop Fund, a firm with the mission to boost recycling, has provided $43 million to U.S. municipalities seeking to improve their facilities and management systems. Other organizations, such as Circulate Capital, invest in projects around Asia with the goal of reducing plastic pollution within the ocean. With more organizations and funds serving to alleviate plastic pollution and provide financing opportunities to waste management facilities, the United States can become better equipped to handle plastic and produce innovative procedures. The Recycling Partnership, a nonprofit with the goal to improve recycling, estimates that a 17 billion dollar investment over five years would have a myriad of benefits. With this investment applied, the United States’ entire recycling system would be improved and up to standards to process all domestic waste, 112% increase in recycling rate, and the creation of 198,000 jobs. Additionally, it would be most budget effective to finance this project, as 9.4 billion dollars would be saved from the cost of using landfill sites. Furthermore, this initiative would raise the value of recyclables to 8.8 billion dollars, sequentially creating the incentive and market demand necessary for popularizing the use of reusable plastic materials.

Another alternative is creating a nationwide recycling system that would allow for universal, transparent rules surrounding plastic waste and eliminate the much too complicated and unclear current method in the US. As of now, the decisions made regarding recycling differ across the country, where 20,000 communities in the U.S. make their own choices about what is and is not classified as recyclable. Instead, companies, communities, and the government must come together to find a consistent measurement method for handling plastic waste and set clear rules regarding the nation’s recycling system. Furthermore, Recycle Across America, a nonprofit, looks to reevaluate the recycling method across the U.S. by advocating for a nationwide labeling system. By issuing standard, universal labels on all types of waste, sorting plastic would become an easier task and would improve recycling while also reducing contamination and ultimately lead to less contamination of plastic waste

These suggested reforms to the current waste management system in the United States would dramatically reduce the amount of plastic pollution, alleviate overflow and outsourcing to developing countries, and support a future based around recycled products. The U.S. must look from within and recognize the immense flaws regarding waste management. This will allow for a future in which Western nations take responsibility and action rather than forcing the issue elsewhere beyond national borders. By rethinking the way we as a country interact with plastic pollution and eliminating the burden of our waste consumption onto developing nations, a more equitable, fair, and conscientious global society may arise.



UNA-NCA Snapshots provides a platform for our community leaders, partners, members & staff to publish op-eds, reviews, and innovative research. The views in this blog do not necessarily reflect the views of UNA-NCA. Ready to write? Submit your pitch to communications@unanca.org.

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