Outlook #6: Plastic’s Travel: How Waste Flows Across Borders

Written by Arthur Farellio H.P., Natasha Fazilla P.N., and Stefanie Gloria
Research and Analysis Division FPCI Chapter UI Board of 2023
Globalization has allowed for the transfer of trade and culture across nations. This interconnectedness also results in the disposal of wastes from More Economically Developed Countries (“MEDCs”) to Less and Middle-Income Economically Developing Countries (“LEDCs”) in a phenomenon known as the “waste trade” (Break Free From Plastic, 2023). Some wastes are important for the growing economies of LEDCs as they can be recycled for further production (Gardiner, 2023). However, the waste trade also gave rise to illegal waste trading, where MEDCs with malicious intentions have used the waste trade to flood the waters of Global South with non recyclable waste (Gardiner, 2023).
Taking into account the fact that the top 10 contributors of plastic waste in the ocean are LEDCs countries, illegal waste trading raises another cause of concern as these countries are still struggling to develop their own efficient waste management system (Aritonang, 2023). Observing the inherent pressing matter of this issue, one must then question to what extent is this global waste trade, especially the illegal ones, responsible for the amount of plastic pollution currently existing within our ocean?

The Foundational Regulation

In the year 1989, The Basel Convention was established to recognize the detrimental impact of hazardous waste on both human health and the environment (Benson & Mortensen, 2021). This convention is notably an unprecedented measure as it is the first legally binding global instrument in history . It is also convened to establish global regulations pertaining to the international transport of plastic waste. As a result, the reached consensus stipulates that a nation is no longer allowed to export contaminated, mixed, or non-recyclable plastics without the informed consent from the receiving country (Benson & Mortensen, 2021).
The convention not only addresses consent between countries but also seeks to create a unified global framework for managing toxic imports. This entails the need to establish an environmentally sound disposal process, which will require new policies from both national governments and multilateral institutions. All in all, it was an attempt to regulate hazardous waste trade, but not to halt the transboundary movement of toxic materials. Continuing from that, it stated the different forms of waste, such as: toxic, poisonous, explosive, flammable, and others (Benson & Mortensen, 2021).
Although plastic debris management has been a critical global concern, it was not clearly defined or included in the classification of original hazardous substances. Therefore, in January 2021, amendments were introduced to incorporate plastic waste as a recognized form of waste. These changes affected Annexes II (now encompassing all plastic waste, especially mixed plastics), Annexes VIII (addressing hazardous plastic waste), and Annexes IX (covering non-hazardous plastic waste destined for recycling) to better regulate the trade in plastic waste (Benson & Mortensen, 2021). Several countries, including the People’s Democratic Republic of Algeria, Chile, Indonesia, and numerous others, have declared their adherence to the provisions of this Convention (Basel Convention, 2013).

Previous Implemented Policies and Their Shortcomings

The prevalence of illegal waste trading despite the existence of regulating policies occurs due to a lack of significant sanctions and enforcements. Claiming that to be the case, this article argues that the existing Basel Convention, that supposedly legally binds the 188 parties[1], is still not a sufficient safeguard in ensuring that the waste trade does not become destructive for the receiver (Benson & Mortensen, 2021). 
One notable case occurred in 2019 when the Philippines made headlines by sending back 69 containers of non-recyclable materials trash to Canada. Ironically, these containers were a part of the global waste recycling trade that took 6 years and quite literally a threat of a declaration of war for Canada to take responsibility for it (Eschner, 2019). This grueling process was forcibly undertaken by the Philippines as the Basel Convention did not regulate plastic waste transfer at the time (Sembiring, 2019). The Philippines has also as of yet ratified any regulations pertaining to plastic waste imports, as its domestic policies does not classify plastic waste as a hazardous waste (Cabico, 2020). Such legal uncertainty is a considerable threat, taking into account that in the span of 2022-2023 alone, the EU saw a nearly doubled increase of plastic waste exports to non-OECD[2] countries (European Union Export Data, 2023). 
Furthermore, the Basel Convention relies heavily upon each individual parties’ policy in regards to dealing with illegal waste trade as the treaty itself adopts a rather “soft” law system (Benson & Mortensen)[3]. Hence, its implementation, left under the authority of each individual nation, can result in differing rates of efficacy. Indonesia, for one, has implemented legislation for the type of plastic waste that can be imported to the country. However, lack of adequate sorting and practices of bribery in border and customs left Indonesia as an easy prey for those seeking to throw away their waste irresponsibly (Gardiner, 2023). 

Breaking Down the Misconception: Not All Waste is Bad?

Within this convention, one of the aims is to establish a regulatory framework for cases where cross-border waste transfers are allowed to occur (Benson & Mortensen, 2021). This implies that there is one specific type of waste permitted, which is non-hazardous plastic waste destined for recycling. A study delved into 11 years of data on global plastics trade alongside economic indicators for 85 countries, discovered that plastic waste import was linked with an increase in gross domestic product per capita in lower-income countries (Bai & Givens, 2021). This is due to the potential of recycled plastics being repurposed into other products and incorporated into manufacturing industries, which provides a more cost-effective capital compared to purchasing or producing virgin plastics from scratch (Zaske, 2021). Consequently, this presents employment opportunities for a substantial number of workers.
However, this does raise a new concern. While the creation of jobs is undoubtedly a positive outcome, it is important to note the unfortunate reality that many workers in this field endure long hours and receive low pay. Oftenly, they also face inadequate working conditions, like dealing with microplastics around the river that lead to toxic infiltration into the human body (Dutchen, 2023). This prompts the question: does the benefit genuinely outweigh these potential disadvantages? Thus, as with any other matter, something viewed as beneficial should be thoroughly examined before passing judgment.

Can We Recycle Our Way Out of This?

In response to this recurring waste problem, people tend to see solutions such as recycling to be the sole coping mechanism. However, it is not enough in the current looming waste threat under at least two main grounds. First, the method we now possess does not fully impose an effective impact. Only less than 20% of waste is estimated to get recycled globally (European Council, 2023). This urgency gets even more defined as China, who handled nearly half of the world’s recyclable waste, started banning the import of most plastics in 2018. Unable to send its waste to its usual tenant, the USA, which has yet to develop sufficient capacity for recycling, could only effectively recycle 10% of its total plastic waste that year. Therefore, it is impertinent to acknowledge that the existing recycling culture has not been backed up by a proper mechanism to deal with a comprehensive recycling procedure. Evenmore, there are a few types of waste that can only be recycled in a finite number as it will produce a lesser quality of products that merely prolong the inevitable journey of the waste to the landfills (Ooko, 2022).
 Second, even in the scenario where integrated, optimal mechanisms existed, a mere recycling is still not enough considering the amount of waste continued to be produced at the same time. Globally, the recycling rate is still falling short of the production rate by over 50% (Greenpeace, 2022). Even Germany, whose recycling practices are deemed to be the best in the world, is still struggling to control its waste production—as per 2016, each German was responsible for producing at least 626 kilograms of rubbish on average (Deutsche Welle, 2018).  
In line with the data, experts argue recycling does not address the root cause of waste as it will merely transfer the existing pollution and relegate the responsibilities to the LEDCs instead (Break Free From Plastic, 2016). Rebecca Harms, a member of the European Parliament (MEP) for the Greens–European Free Alliance group, considers the sole action of recycling as less stimulating. Avoiding waste piling up in the first place by changing people’s behavior was advocated to be more of a priority (Deutsche Welle, 2018). All in all, the fact that our excessive production and limited capability to manage the resulting residue should urge us to start thinking beyond recycling (Ries, 2020). 


Globalization has brought many implications for the practice of transnational waste trade. Basel Convention, as the main legal foundation, still exhibits many shortcomings, which are the lack of enforcement and individual countries’ policies vary in effectiveness. To cover such shortcomings, recycling, unfortunately, falls short on two main problems. Firstly, an optimal mechanism cannot address the sheer volume of waste generated, since the global recycling rate is still 20%. Secondly, relying solely on recycling does not tackle the root cause of plastic pollution. Therefore, the Authors believe that it is important to shift the focus beyond recycling and consider alternative approaches to mitigate the environmental impact of plastic waste. In addition to that, it is crucial for nations to take collective responsibility and implement stringent measures to combat illegal waste trade. All the more, a paradigm shift towards reducing plastic consumption and adopting more sustainable practices is imperative in addressing this global challenge.


[1] The term “party” is used here instead of “states”, as the signatories of the treaty also includes the European Union, arguably a non-state party. 
[2] Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development
[3] This refers to how the convention, while legally binding, shall only be something that is relied upon by nations to create their own legislatures and measures pertaining to illegal waste trade (Emily Benson & Sarah Mortensen).


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