Southeast Asia Doesn’t Want to Be the World’s Dumping Ground. Here’s How Some Countries Are Pushing Back

The global trash trade has reached a turning point; wealthier nations have long shipped their plastic waste to the developing world to be processed, but in recent months, some nations in Southeast Asia have begun sending the exports — much of it contaminated plastic and trash that is unrecyclable — back to where it came from.

The pushback comes as containers of trash continue to accumulate on the shores of countries like Malaysia, Thailand and the Philippines, which are increasingly worried that the environmental costs are greater than the income they bring in from importing the waste.

Southeast Asia has not always been the world’s dumping ground. For decades, China was the world’s biggest importer of scrap plastic, taking in millions of tonnes of plastic waste as raw materials from countries like the U.S. and the U.K. to fuel a growing manufacturing sector. China imported close to half of the world’s global plastic waste, reaching a peak of nine million tonnes in 2012, according to environmental organization Greenpeace.

But severe pollution as a result of poorly managed waste processes led to a country-wide import ban in January 2018, effectively barring China from receiving the plastic waste it had bought so much of in the past.

The legislation caused a significant shake-up in the global garbage trade. “There was a mass scramble for alternative destinations for waste coming from mainly industrialized countries,” Von Hernandez, Global Coordinator of nonprofit Break Free From Plastic, told TIME.

Whose garbage is it?

The garbage is exported from around a dozen developed countries including the U.S., Canada, France, Belgium, Germany, Spain, the Netherlands and the U.K., according to Greenpeace.

According to the BBC, the European Union is the world’s biggest exporter of plastic waste, while the U.S. is the largest single-country source.

“Richer countries are taking advantage of the looser regulations in poorer countries,” Lea Guerrero, Country Director for Greenpeace Philippines, told TIME. “They export the trash here because it’s more expensive for them to process the mixed, contaminated waste themselves back home due to the tighter laws.”

Where did it go?

Without China to ferry their waste off to, the developing world has taken to exporting their trash to countries in Southeast Asia, where some have lax environmental regulations that make it easier to dispose of the garbage.

Malaysia, Vietnam, Thailand and Indonesia picked up a lot of the slack, with Malaysia emerging as the number one importer. Home to a significant Chinese-speaking population, Malaysia was a logical choice for Chinese recyclers looking to relocate, according to the South China Morning Post.

The country’s imports rose five-fold to about 110,000 tons per month following China’s ban, according to Greenpeace. The three largest exporters to the country in the first half of 2018 were the U.S., Japan and the U.K.

In the Philippines, waste imports almost tripled to 11,900 tons from 2016 to 2018, according to official figures cited in Philippines news site Rappler. But Guerrero, of Greenpeace Philippines, said the official figures represent “the tip of the iceberg.”

“The real number is likely higher than what is published,” Guerrero said. “With so many ports of entry, we lack the capacity to monitor exactly what comes in.”

Other countries in the region also saw a spike. Thailand’s imports increased by almost 2,000%, while Vietnam similarly saw a noteworthy rise, according to Greenpeace’s environmental news site Unearthed.

“Rich industrialized countries that have the resources to deal with these materials in a responsible way have outsourced the disposal to countries that are less capable,” Hernandez said.

Who’s pushing back?

Since imports spiked last year, countries including Malaysia and the Philippines have already begun sending unwanted trash back to its source, while others are rethinking their policies.

In January, the Philippines sent back 51 containers of mixed waste to South Korea, including plastic and other materials that were misdeclared, six months after it arrived in a southern port. Officials in Seoul said the country would take back the trash and shoulder the shipment costs.

In April, Malaysia became the second country to push back when it returned five containers to Spain, CNN reported. Environment Minister Yeo Bee Yin said it would continue to send waste back, with plans to ship more than 3,000 tonnes of contaminated waste to the countries that exported them. Specifically, she said 100 tonnes of the waste would be sent back to Australia, the Guardian reports, including plastic bottles that she said were “full of maggots.”

Speaking to reporters during a visit to Tokyo in late May, Malaysia’s Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad called the trade “grossly unfair,” according to the Associated Press. “We don’t need your waste because our own waste is enough to give us problems,” he said.

And on Friday, the Philippines made good on its previous threat to send trash back to Canada as a cargo ship loaded with 69 containers of garbage left the Manila for Vancouver, escalating a diplomatic row between the two countries. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte earlier said that Canada missed a deadline to take back the trash it shipped to the Philippines in 2013 and 2014, and threatened to dump it in Canada’s waters if the country refused. Canada reportedly said it would take back the trash, exported as part of a commercial agreement and without government permission, but that it needed more time.

But the damage has been done, Guerrero said. Almost a third of the garbage sent to the Philippines from Canada could not be sent back as the trash had already leaked and been dumped into landfills.

Both Malaysia and Vietnam have attempted to restrict imports by suspendingthe issue of licenses, according to Reuters. The Thai government has also ordered the temporary prohibition of plastic waste, according to Greenpeace.

How is this impacting the environment?

The accumulation of plastic along the countries’ shores pose significant threat to the environment and livelihoods of local communities.

“The plastic waste is burying agricultural communities, literally transforming what used to be pristine environments into toxic dumpsites,” said Hernandez, of Break Free From Plastic.

Because a significant percentage of the imports are mixed municipal waste that cannot be recycled, most end up illegally incinerated on roadsides and dumped in unregulated landfills, where they release highly poisonous fumes.

According to the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA), bodies of water in the worst affected villages have registered dangerous levels of zinc, iron and lead. Entire crop fields have also been wiped out, posing threat to local livelihoods.

In response, environmental groups are putting increased pressure on governments to clamp down on imports and sign the Basel Ban Amendment, an extension of a U.N. treaty known as the Basel Convention.

The amendment, which is not yet in force, would prohibit developed nations from exporting hazardous waste to developing nations. Philippines and Vietnam are not signatories.

In the meantime, developed countries continue to export their trash.

“Richer nations are shipping their problems down here so they can take advantage of the poor environmental standards,” Guerrero said. “It’s deplorable.”

Article originally posted in Time.

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Canary Wharf Crowned the World’s first Plastic Free Communities Approved Commercial Centre

Canary Wharf Group has become the world’s first Commercial Centre to be awarded Plastic Free Communities Approved status by Surfers Against Sewage. The group has been working across all levels to start reducing the impact of single-use avoidable plastic as part of its #BreakingThePlasticHabit campaign, demonstrating global business leadership and a commitment to protecting our oceans.

Canary Wharf stretches across 16.5million sq. ft. of London real estate and became the first Commercial Centre to sign up to Plastic Free Communities in June 2018. In joining this nationwide movement Canary Wharf Group sent a strong message that urban and business communities play a vital role in tackling avoidable, single-use plastic and reducing the harm it does to our rivers and oceans.

Fast forward to June 2019 and not only has the district become the world’s first Commercial Centre to achieve Plastic Free Communities Approved status, it is also the first of dozens of communities in London who are now working on the SAS Community Toolkit, to achieve the accolade.

37 businesses within the centre have eliminated at least three single-use plastic items, and regular workshops help them and others identify further steps they can take. Refill and re-use schemes have been introduced including the UK’s first Reverse Vending Machine for bottles and cans, and the ‘Helpful’ mobile phone app which rewards consumers every time they re-use a bottle, coffee cup, bag or food container/cutlery. Dedicated coffee cup bins have increased recycling, water refill points are available and a plastic-free food court is now on-site. A Seabin has even been installed, to highlight the impact of throwaway plastic on the River Thames, and ultimately the ocean.

This is how it looks in numbers:

  • Over 2 million items of avoidable single-use plastic have been eliminated
  • Over 4 million coffee cups have been recycled. If you stand these cups side by side they would stretch from London to Durham
  • Removal of over 1 million plastic straws with 83 retailers on the Estate removing plastic straws entirely
  • Over 100,000 water bottles have been reused across the seven water refill stations
  • Over 19,000 bottles recycled using the Return Vending machine
  • The new Sea Bin collects 30kg of plastic a month from the waterways at Canary Wharf

Raising awareness has been an important part of the Group’s work and as well as regular consumer events, there have been a host of business briefings involving some of the world’s leading companies. Community links have been forged with local schools and nurseries and the Group is aiming to support community cleans and local Surfers Against Sewage reps, as it works to build on its journey to reduce single-use plastic.

Canary Wharf is one of the largest of the UK wide communities to achieve the Plastic Free Communities Approved status. The Group says it is now looking forward to working with other organisations at Canary Wharf to build on this initial groundwork and to work towards fully freeing its community from single-use plastics.

Hugo Tagholm, CEO of Surfers Against Sewage, said: “I’m delighted that Canary Wharf has achieved our Plastic Free Communities status, working to eliminate avoidable single-use plastics. This is the world’s first commercial centre to achieve our status, demonstrating their leadership, commitment and ongoing journey to reduce the use of avoidable single-use plastics across the estate. London is an ocean city, with the tidal Thames running through its heart, and Surfers Against Sewage is delighted to see ocean activism taking hold within such a globally renowned business centre overlooking this iconic river. Tackling plastic pollution is vital from source to sea, and business leadership will help us all reinvent our relationship with plastic.”

Sir George Iacobescu, Chairman and Chief Executive, Canary Wharf Group, said: “Canary Wharf’s Breaking The Plastic Habit programme is part of our long term commitment to deliver a future that’s truly sustainable at Canary Wharf. Our programme is designed to act as a blueprint for behavioural change and prompt wider action towards a single-use plastic-free future. It is our hope that this forms part of Canary Wharf’s legacy for a sustainable city in which we transform our community and spark a wider, long-term change for the better; not just for now but for future generations.”

There are now 30 registered Plastic Free Communities in London, joining another 500+ across the UK who are working to free where they live from single-use plastic. Community leads work to the same five-point toolkit as Canary Wharf and an array of refill and reuse projects are emerging from this grassroots movement. Communities aren’t aiming to eliminate all plastic from their lives … they work to tackle our addiction to throwaway plastic and help change the system that produces it, one plastic bottle at a time.

Find out more and sign up to lead your community here

Get full details of Canary Wharf’s Breaking the Plastic Habit here

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The Deadliest Fraud of Our Time-Plastic Cigarette Filters

According to a report by Ocean Conservancy, the top 10 marine litters of the 2018 ICC were, for the first time, all made from plastic [1]. And cigarette butts (smoked cigarette filters) are number 1 on the list.

Most people, even regular smokers, think cigarette filters are made from cotton. That’s perhaps the reason why most smokers throw away cigarette butts on the street, or even in the sewers. In fact, most modern cigarette filters are made from “Cellulose Acetate”, a form of plastic that takes 12 years to fully degrade in nature. And during the degradation process, average 12,000 Cellulose Acetate microfibers in a single cigarette filter contribute to the “plastic microfibers problem”–they absorb hydrophobic organic pollutants in the waterways and being consumed by the planktons which constitute the bottom of the marine food chain.

Before the 1950’s, only 0.5% of all cigarettes on the market have filters, and the purpose of the filters was not to retain toxic chemicals–“Moist lips are thrilling lips! Keep them soft, alluring.” So proclaimed a 1936 ad for a novelty cigarette, designed for women. At the time, almost all cigarettes were unfiltered. Companies sometimes added special mouthpieces — called beauty tips, often made of cork — for women. After all, what seductress would want to be seen picking tobacco flecks off her tongue? [2]


It was only later in the 1950’s, when E. Cuyler Hammond, Ph.D., and Daniel Horn, Ph.D. confirmed the cause and effect relationship of smoking and lung cancer in an August 7, 1954 “Journal of the American Medical Association” article [3]. Since then, more and more tobacco companies added “filters” to their cigarettes; and until 1975, about 90% of the boxed cigarettes contained filters made from the plastic “Cellulose Acetate”. However the filters only offer psychological comforts to smokers–the plastic filters only retain about 2% of all chemicals from a burning cigarette. And not only smoked cigarette filters, even unsmoked cigarette filters are toxic to marine lives [4]. Therefore as a scientist said: “cigarette filters are the deadliest fraud in our time”.

Not only the ineffectiveness on cancer prevention of the “Cellulose Acetate” filters, what’s more concerning is how people take cigarette butts for granted, thinking they are natural material and throw them all over the place–it can be the most abundant plastic litters on the street with few people realizing it, and now the number one of all marine litters.

Since May the 4th 2019, Wild at Heart Legal Defense Association Taiwan has weekly campaigns on the streets advocating that cigarette butts are plastic. And not only do we ask smokers to throw the cigarette butts in the proper bins, we also aim to ask international tobacco industries to phase out plastic filters. In a brand audit of 2186 cigarette butts gathered in the streets of Taipei, we found about 40% of the litters are products of “Japan Tobacco International”, followed by “Philip Morris International”, “Taiwan Tobacco and Liquor Company” and “British American Tobacco International”. Our ultimate goal is to stop all tobacco industries using plastic material for cigarette filters. After all, the ultimate measure is to stop it at the source. Cigarette butts are now the number one plastic litters in the coastline and on the streets, and they also belong to “single-use plastics”. We have to take this issue seriously in order to “Break Free From Plastic”.

Xavier Sun,
Zero Waste Campaigner,
Wild at Heart Legal Defense Association, Taiwan


GAIA East Asia Regional Advisory Committee Member





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Treated like trash: south-east Asia vows to return mountains of rubbish from west

For the past year, the waste of the world has been gathering on the shores of south-east Asia. Crates of unwanted rubbish from the west have accumulated in the ports of the Philippines, Indonesia and Vietnam while vast toxic wastelands of plastics imported from Europe and the US have built up across Malaysia.

But not for much longer it seems. A pushback is beginning, as nations across south-east Asia vow to send the garbage back to where it came from.

Last week the president of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, threatened to sever diplomatic ties with Canada if the government did not agree to take back 69 containers containing 1,500 tonnes of waste that had been exported to the Philippines in 2013 and 2014.

Canada had refused to even acknowledge the issue for years but as the dispute escalated, Duterte declared that if the government did not act quickly, the Philippines would tow the rubbish to Canadian waters and dump it there.

“The Philippines as an independent sovereign nation must not be treated as trash by a foreign nation,” said presidential spokesman Salvador Panelo.

The rhetoric was symptomatic of a wider regional pushback that began last year when Thailand, Malaysia and Vietnam all introduced legislation to prevent contaminated foreign waste coming into their ports.

On 23 April a Malaysian government investigation revealed that waste from the UK, Australia, United States and Germany was pouring into the country illegally, falsely declared as other imports.

Enough was enough, said Yeo Bee Yin, the environment minister. “Malaysia will not be the dumping ground of the world. We will send back [the waste] to the original countries.”

She has been as good as her word. Five containers of illegal rubbish from Spain discovered at a Malaysian port have just been sent back and on Tuesday Yeo announced that 3,000 tonnes of illegally imported plastic waste from the UK, the US, Australia, Japan, France and Canada would be returned imminently.

Many believe this is the only way that countries, mainly in the west, will finally be forced to confront their own waste problems, rather than burdening developing countries.

Only 9% of the world’s plastics are recycled, with the rest mostly ending up rotting in landfills across south-east Asia or illegally incinerated, releasing highly poisonous fumes. Campaigners in Indonesia found last year that illegal rubbish imports were being used as furnace fuel in a tofu factory.

“It is the right move by the Malaysian government, to show to the world that we are serious in protecting our borders from becoming a dumping ground,” said Mageswari Sangaralingam, research officer at Consumers Association of Penang and Friends of the Earth Malaysia. She said significant amounts of plastic waste coming into Malaysia was contaminated, mixed and low grade” which meant it could not be processed and has ended up in vast toxic waste dumps.

An environmental injustice

The problem began for south-east Asia in early 2018 after China stopped accepting plastic waste and recycling from the rest of the world due to environmental concerns. The outright ban was problematic: in 2016, China processed at least half of the world’s exports of plastic, paper and metals, including enough rubbish from the UK to fill 10,000 olympic swimming pools.

A woman holds a portrait of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau during a protest outside the Canadian Embassy

A woman holds a portrait of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau during a protest outside the Canadian Embassy Photograph: Mark R Cristino/EPA

In the wake of China’s ban, private corporations handling waste for national governments began scrambling for other countries to bear the burden. With most of the rubbish channelled through Hong Kong, south-east Asia, which was nearby and had lax regulation, became an attractive alternative destination for the rubbish.

Malaysia has borne the brunt of the re-directed waste. According to Greenpeace, imports of plastic waste to Malaysia increased from 168,500 tonnes in 2016 to 456,000 tonnes in just the first six months of 2018, mainly coming from the UK, Germany, Spain, France Australia and the US. The environmental and social cost has been high. A report by Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA) detailed how across sout-east Asia, the influx of toxic waste has caused contaminated water, crop death and respiratory illnesses.

In recognition of the damage being done, the Basel Convention, a multilateral agreement about the handling of waste globally, was amended this month to prohibit unrecyclable and contaminated plastic waste being imported into developing countries without their consent. However, it will only come into effect in 2020 and not all south-east Asian countries are signatories.

Yet even as south-east Asian governments start to crack down on the problem, the waste just keeps on coming. In Indonesia, 60 containers of foreign hazardous and toxic waste have been sitting in a port in Riau Island for the past five months. Last week, crates of shredded municipal garbage from Australia turned up in the Philippines labelled as fuel in at attempt to bypass customs regulations. Philippine customs officials confirmed they were working on sending it back.

Beau Baconguis, Plastics Campaigner of GAIA Asia Pacific, pointed out how developed countries in the west were still only willing to take back their own rubbish “begrudgingly” .

“It’s their waste so these countries should be responsible for it,” said Baconguis. “To us, it’s an environmental injustice for poorer countries to take the waste of richer countries just because they don’t want to deal with it. So hopefully when their rubbish is sent back, finally these countries will be forced into action on their own doorstep.”

Green groups call on Southeast Asian governments to resist waste imports

MANILA, Philippines (May 24, 2019) — Southeast Asian environmental non-governmental organizations are calling on their respective governments to strictly enforce bans on illegally shipped wastes from developed countries.

“The recent news about waste shipments being discovered at the shores of the Philippines, Indonesia, and Malaysia is alarming. When the wealthy nations clean up, it should not have to be at the expense of the developing world. Governments in Asia, which has become the world’s new dumpsite, must strictly guard their territories against waste smuggling from richer countries,” said Beau Baconguis, Plastics Campaigner of the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA) Asia Pacific and Break Free From Plastic Asia Pacific coordinator.

Early this month, waste shipments from Australia arrived at the Mindanao International Container Terminal in Tagoloan, Misamis Oriental in Southern Philippines. These were declared as municipal waste/processed engineered fuel (PEF) intended for the cement company Holcim. The news of the shipment broke out as the Philippine government is demanding the Canadian government to take back 69 containers of illegally shipped wastes found in the Manila port in 2013 and 2014.

“The entry into our country of residual wastes generated by Australia’s commercial, industrial, and construction sectors in the form of cement kiln fuels looks like a devious disposal scheme.  Described as ‘municipal waste’ in the shipment declaration, Australia is able to get rid of its residual wastes in a profitable way by converting and relabeling them as processed engineered fuel for export to developing countries like ours. We question this latest scheme of foreign waste disposal,” said Aileen Lucero, National Coordinator of Ecowaste Coalition.

Meanwhile, early this year, at least 60 shipping containers carrying hazardous and toxic wastes have been piling up at the Batu Ampar port in Batam, Riau Island, in Indonesia for five months. Earlier, a shipment containing waste from foreign countries was discovered in Tanjung Priok Port in Jakarta.

“This has to stop. It is the height of hypocrisy for the richer countries to be presenting themselves to the world as having good waste management system, while at the same time, polluting us and calling us the world’s biggest polluters. Shame on them! Come clean up your mess and stop producing so much waste,” said Yuyun Ismawati, co-founder of BaliFokus/Nexus3.

Earlier this week, news outlets reported that the Malaysian government has already sent back to Spain five containers of contaminated plastic waste that was smuggled into the country. According to the United Nations’ trade database and the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries, Malaysia’s imports of plastic waste from its 10 biggest source-countries jumped to 456,000 tons between January and July 2018, versus 316,600 tons purchased in all of 2017 and 168,500 tons in 2016.

Mageswari Sangalingaram of the Consumers Association of Penang lauds the move of the government of Malaysia to resist the waste shipments.

“As the Malaysian government is getting stringent in enforcing restrictions of plastic waste imports by sending back mixed, contaminated and falsely declared waste consignment to the country of origin, we are very concerned that unscrupulous exporters are now eyeing other countries and ports of entry to dump their waste. The enforcement agencies must now step up their efforts to ensure that our countries do not become dumping grounds for the developed nations,” she said.

Countries in Southeast Asia, particularly Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Thailand have been at the receiving end of illegally shipped wastes from developed countries since China banned plastic waste importation in 2018. Because of this, Malaysian and Thai governments started imposing restrictions in mid-2018.

A recent  report by GAIA titled “Discarded: Communities on the Frontlines of the Global Plastic Crisis” shows the impacts of plastic waste being dumped into developing countries. The influx of the plastic waste in these countries has resulted in contaminated water, crop death, and respiratory illnesses caused by inhaling toxic fumes from burned plastic.

In the recently held Basel Convention, an international treaty on dealing with hazardous waste, 187 countries agreed to Norway’s proposal of extending the “prior informed consent” system to plastic waste. The agreement requires exporters to seek the permission from destination countries before it can ship in its hazardous waste to that country. The said agreement is set to take effect after a year.

“The Basel Convention mandates countries to deal with their plastic waste problem in their own backyards instead of passing the burden on to other countries. Until the amendment takes effect in 2020, developing countries are on their own in safeguarding their territories,” Baconguis said.

Note to the Editor:

In order to make cement, high-temperature kilns are needed. Traditionally, coal is used in these kilns, but in the past two decades, many “alternative fuels” have been used. The term “alternative fuel” has often been used to disguise the fact that this “fuel” is actually waste, including tires, plastics, and petrochemical waste. Burning waste alongside coal allows cement kilns to use loopholes in emission regulations. In some instances, the kilns actually receive subsidies or carbon credits for replacing some coal with waste—in spite of their toxic impact.



Jed Alegado, Communications Officer, Break Free From Plastic | +63 917-6070248


Sherma Benosa, Communications Officer, GAIA Asia Pacific | +63 917-8157570


Sonia Astudillo, Communications Officer, GAIA Asia Pacific | +63 917-5969286


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College of the Atlantic Commits to Campus Wide Plastic Elimination Goal

Bar Harbor, ME. The College of the Atlantic is the first college campus in the country to sign onto the “Break Free From Plastic Campus Pledge” – a campus-wide commitment to eliminate all single-use disposable plastics. With COA’s President signing the pledge last week, COA has committed to “Break Free From Plastic” by 2025. This initiative was led by the student group [Earth] and supported by the non-profit the Post-Landfill Action Network (PLAN). The “Break Free From Plastic” campus pledge and toolkit specifically addresses accessibility and inclusivity concerns, and generates a framework for college campuses (and other institutions) to develop long-term systemic solutions to issues around
waste and disposable consumption.

PLAN is a non-profit that cultivates, educates, and inspires students leaders to tackle issues around waste and unsustainable systems on their campus. The campus pledge was built in coalition with the international Break Free From Plastic Movement and can be found on PLAN’s website among many
other tools and resources to assist students looking to get involved in the student led zero waste movement.

[Earth] started as a logo developed by a group of College of the Atlantic students preparing to attend the UN Climate Negotiations in Nairobi in 2006. From there it has grown into an internationally recognized symbol representing the political mess we’re in. We believe international cooperation is not only possible, but necessary if we are to address our most pressing problems. Any lasting solution needs to include as many people as possible.

Darron Collins ’92, President of COA, Anna Mae Sheehan ’22 and Isidora Muñoz ’22, members of [Earth]

“It’s become clear to many people by now that plastics are one of humanity’s ‘wicked problems,’ and while the actions of one small college aren’t going to solve that problem, what we are doing with the signing of this pledge is a very real start–one we hope that other organisations will take notice of and consider following along.” – Darron Collins ’92, president of COA.

“The PLAN pledge will be an important keystone in College of the Atlantic’s commitment to diverting 90% of campus associated discarded resources from landfill and incineration by 2025” – Eleanor White ’22, co-chair of the Campus Committee for Sustainability

“By signing PLANs #BreakFreeFromPlastic pledge, we hope to commit College of the Atlantic to follow through on the discarded resource policies that we have in place and join a growing network of campuses that are moving away from single-use plastics” – Anna Mae Sheehan ’22, member of [Earth]

For More Information Contact
Faye Christoforo, PLAN Co-Director: 978-269-4368,


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Asia Will No Longer Tolerate Being a Plastic Waste Dump

China set the trend of refusing foreign plastic waste. Now other Asian countries are following suit.

Over the last three decades, the top plastic waste exporters, including the United States, Japan, and the United Kingdom, sent abroad plastic waste weighting about  168 million tonnes, most of it to China. In 2018, China said “enough is enough,” and announced a ban on imports of plastic waste, setting off a crisis in the global waste system. The majority of this plastic was then redirected into Southeast Asia, with Malaysia, Vietnam, Thailand, and Indonesia being flooded with waste, at great environmental and human cost.

However, from local clean-up crews and campaigns to global action, a powerful movement to break free from plastics is making change in 2019.

International Agreement to Clean up Waste Trade

European Union countries, who already have a law banning all exports of Basel-controlled “hazardous” waste to developing countries, will now also be prohibited from exporting dirty or mixed plastic waste to much of Asia.This week at the United Nations, over 180 countries took a major step forward in curbing the plastic waste crisis by adding plastic to the Basel Convention, a treaty that controls the movement of hazardous waste from one country to another. This change means exporters will be required to get consent from receiving countries before shipping most contaminated, mixed, or unrecyclable plastic waste, providing an powerful way for countries in the Global South to stop the dumping of unwanted plastic waste into their country.

This decision will help to clean up the trade in plastic currently flooding Southeast Asia, which has resulted in polluted waterways, fires and illegal dumping, to name just a few issues. Controls on the global plastic waste trade will have real impacts in the lives of local people, such as those living in towns like Kok Hua Khao in Thailand, where the water has become undrinkable since a foreign waste operation started there last year.

While all Asian countries supported the move, not everyone was cheering on this new waste trade regulation. The United States (the largest exporter of plastic waste in the world), the petrochemical industry, and some recycling lobbying groups strongly opposed the deal. Yet as the United States is not a party to the Basel Convention it was not able to vote, and will be banned from trading dirty or mixed plastic waste to most of the Global South. As Jim Puckett from the Basel Action Network explained, “The fact that the U.S. will no longer be able to use the rest of the world as a plastic waste dump is a very significant victory for the environment and global justice.”

This global action should result in less plastic in our oceans, as exporting countries will be forced to take responsibility for their own plastic problem, rather than simply exporting their pollution.

Plastic burning in Surabaya, Indonesia.
Image Credit: Emma Priestland, Friends of the Earth

Reduce Plastics at Home

The murky reality is that much of the plastic that we throw into recycling bins is low-grade, dirty, and mixed type plastics, which are then dumped in countries in Asia. There, they are usually recycled unsafely and to low standards, and often simply incinerated, landfilled, or leaked into the environment. This is driven by brutal, short-term economics: exporting is often cheaper than reducing, sorting, cleaning, recycling, or reusing plastics locally.

In 2017 China, fed up with being the Global North’s dumping ground, notified the World Trade Organization that it intended to ban imports of plastic waste.


Furthermore, MalaysiaThailand, and India have taken measures at the national level to ban, restrict, or reduce the import of plastic waste.

Numerous countries in the Global North have since been unable to cope, resulting in dramatic price increases for exporting, and more plastic being incinerated, sent to landfills, or stockpiled. It is time for measures that focus on reducing the overall global production and consumption of plastics and redesigning plastics for reuse and quality, such as toxic-free recycling.

Cities and countries across Asia, from Mumbai to Taiwan to Vanuatu, are starting to introduce bans on single-use plastics. The EU recently adopted new laws reducing single-use plastics, including bans on several items and making manufacturers pay for waste management and clean-ups, and an Australian government parliamentary inquiry produced a much strengthened national waste plan.

This was perhaps an unintended but critical outcome of China’s policy to stop importing plastic waste: a greater understanding of the fact that recycling is not a solution to plastic pollution. Given the massive plastic waste trade problem, plus the fact that only 9 percent of plastics ever produced has been recycled, it is clear we need to tackle the problem at source by reducing production and holding accountable the corporations who profit from this waste trade.

The global trade in plastic waste is symptomatic of the issues with our current corporate trading system. Will it be regulated to protect people and the environment, or will rich countries remain free to dump their plastic waste elsewhere? It is clear Asia will no longer tolerate being a waste dump.  We must all be willing to confront this issue, by overhauling how we produce and consume plastics and breaking free from our addiction to plastics.

Mageswari Sangaralingam is a researcher with Friends of the Earth Malaysia/SAM.

Sam Cossar is a trade campaigner with Friends of the Earth International. He tweets from @samcossar.

Article originally posted in The Diplomat.


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How America Is Sabotaging The Global War On Plastic Waste

When President Donald Trump signed the bipartisan Save Our Seas Act into law last October, he painted a grim picture of just how dire marine plastic pollution had become.

“Every year, over 8 million tons of garbage is dumped into our oceans,” he declared. “This waste, trash and debris harms not only marine life, but also fishermen and coastal economies along America’s vast stretches.”

However, the Trump administration has refused to recognize America’s role in the ocean plastic crisis and has repeatedly tried to stymie international efforts to tackle the problem, while boosting the plastic industry at home.

Trump has blamed “many countries of the world” for the marine plastic problem, calling out China and Japan by name. “The bad news is [this garbage] floats toward us” from “other countries very far away,” the president said last year, adding that the U.S. is then “charged with removing it, which is a very unfair situation.”

While it is true that Asia is the source of an estimated 80% of marine plastic pollution, what Trump failed to mention was that most of it doesn’t actually originate there.


President Donald Trump signing the Save Our Seas Act in the Oval Office on Oct. 11, 2018.


“It’s an uncomfortable fact that … the vast majority of the waste in these Asian countries that are ending up in the oceans actually come from the U.S. and Europe,” David Azoulay of the Center for International Environmental Law said from Geneva on Thursday.

The U.S., which is one of the world’s largest producers and consumers of plastic, is also the No. 1 exporter of plastic scrap.

For decades, it sent much of this waste to China, which had processed about 45% of the world’s plastic scrap until it decided in 2018 to bar most of these imports. As a result, China’s Southeast Asian neighbors have been deluged with American plastic waste. Unlike China, however, countries like Indonesia, Malaysia and Vietnam have neither the infrastructure nor the resources to properly handle this onslaught.

As a HuffPost investigation uncovered earlier this year, bales of plastic trash from countries like the U.S., U.K. and Australia are being illegally dumped or burned across Southeast Asian countries. Local activists in Malaysia said at the time that the U.S. and other wealthy nations were using the region as a “dumping ground.”


Greenpeace activist Malaysia

A Greenpeace activist at a dumpsite in Ipoh, Malaysia, on Jan. 30. Unlicensed recyclers are illegally burning or dumping waste plastics at sites across the country.


Yet, despite Americans’ contribution to the global plastic waste crisis ― and despite the recent efforts of most of the world’s governments to develop solutions to address it ― the Trump administration has chosen to take an “obstructionist” stance on this issue, activists say.

The U.S. is “very clearly isolating itself from the rest of the world on this issue,” said Azoulay, who directs CIEL’s environmental health program.

Just last week, the U.S. was accused of attempting to undermine a landmark Basel Convention proposal to control the flow of plastic waste to developing countries ― a set of rules that would shut the U.S. off from many of the countries where it currently ships its plastic scrap.

“It was another clear example of the U.S. playing an obstructive role in international negotiations,” Von Hernandez, global coordinator for the Break Free From Plastic initiative, said on Tuesday, speaking from the Philippines. “This has long been their playbook for anything to do with the plastic waste trade; they obfuscate the issue, they try to delay the process.”

On Friday, 186 countries and the European Union — all parties of the 1992 Basel treaty, which controls the transboundary movement of hazardous waste between nations — signed a legally binding agreement to track and limit the trade of lower-quality, mixed and contaminated plastics. These materials are typically difficult or impossible to recycle and are the plastics that often end up in landfills or polluting waterways. They also make up the vast majority of the plastic scrap exported by developed countries to poorer ones.

The U.S. is one of two countries that signed but never ratified the Basel treaty ― and, as such, was not among the countries that signed on to the new agreement, dubbed the Norwegian amendment after the country that first proposed it. That didn’t stop the American delegation from rabble-rousing, however.

There was an overwhelming consensus in support of the amendment, an unusual scenario for international agreements of this kind, according to Hernandez, Azoulay and Jim Puckett, founder of the Basel Action Network, who were all in the room during the Basel negotiations last week. Even countries that have historically been antagonistic to plastic waste regulation, like Japan and Canada, backed the proposal.

There was just one tiny faction of countries that opposed the amendment, they said. The U.S. was vocal in its opposition, they noted. The others were Argentina and Brazil, neither of which export very much plastic scrap; the South American duo appeared to parrot the U.S. line.

“The U.S. delegation’s argument was the same argument we always hear from them: ‘We need more time, we cannot make a decision now, we need more data,’” Hernandez said. “You could tell that other parties were frustrated by their behavior.”

Puckett estimated that about 90% of the plastic exported to developing countries is mixed or contaminated. Under the new agreement, which will come into effect in January 2021, parties to the convention that wish to export most mixed and contaminated plastics will first need to obtain consent from the receiving nations.

Puckett described the new rules as “historic” and one of the convention’s greatest achievements to date.

The regulations, he said, are expected to have a profoundly positive effect on the plastic waste and recycling industry worldwide. There will be more transparency to what has historically been the very opaque international trade of plastic scrap. Recyclers in wealthy nations will be compelled to improve their sorting practices, which is expected to increase the rate that plastics are actually recycled. (Since 1950, the plastic waste recycling rate has been an abysmal 9% globally.)

The measures are also expected to significantly reduce the amount of contaminated plastics flowing into Southeast Asia, Africa and other developing areas ― and, in turn, slash the amount of marine plastic pollution originating from these nations.

It’s not hard to imagine why the Trump administration would oppose the Norwegian amendment. Hernandez said the U.S. has long opposed the Basel Convention and has a terrible track record when it comes to regulations related to waste of any kind.

Plus, he noted, the new rules are expected to hit the U.S. especially hard.

According to recent estimates by industry publication Resource Recycling, the U.S. currently exports at least 80% of its mixed plastics. Since the U.S. has not ratified the Basel Convention, however, developing countries that are parties to the treaty will no longer be able to accept most mixed plastics from the U.S. under the new rules.

“As a nonparty, the U.S. won’t be allowed to trade with parties” except for the members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, Puckett explained, noting that OECD members are mostly high-income economies known more for exporting plastic scrap than for importing it.

“The United States has been exporting so much of its scrap [to developing countries],” Puckett said. “They’re going to have to figure out something very different” after 2021.


Malaysian activist dumpsite

A Malaysian activist checks out an illegal plastic dumping site inside a palm oil estate in Kuala Langat. Shredded plastic was spread on the ground and left here. Often, the dumpers will return and burn the piles at night.


Under Trump, a self-declared anti-globalist, the U.S. has increasingly been steered onto an isolationist path. It’s distanced itself from traditional trade partners and allies, has pulled out of international treaties like the landmark Paris climate change agreement and now, on the issue of plastics, has emerged starkly as a global outlier ― one that, according to activists, has attempted to dismantle the progress that other nations have made in this area.

Azoulay said this American separateness and antagonism was particularly obvious at a United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA) meeting held in Kenya in March. During that meeting, almost all countries agreed to a proposal calling for U.N. members to phase out “most problematic single-use plastic products by 2025.” The U.S., with the support of Saudi Arabia and Cuba, however, took issue with this pledge and ultimately succeeded in watering down the language of the commitment to say only that countries would aim to “significantly reduce” single-use plastics by 2030.

According to Azoulay, who attended the Kenya meeting, the U.S. also played a “very strong obstructionist role” during discussions about broader frameworks related to marine litter and microplastics. “Again, the U.S. was a very lonely voice opposing the [plastic proposals] at UNEA,” he said.

Azoulay, a veteran attorney of environmental law, said he’s never seen the world’s nations as united over an issue as they appear to be regarding plastic waste.

“Today, if you look at those international gatherings, almost all countries are supporting tighter controls of plastic and they’re moving very fast,” he said. “In my whole career, I’ve never seen any international regulation move as fast.”

“Since there’s such a wide consensus,” Azoulay added, America’s opposition appears even “more radical.”

Observers have suggested that Trump’s chummy relationship with the fossil fuel industry, as well as influence from the American recycling lobby, could be a root cause of the administration’s hostile position.

Plastic production had been ramping up in the U.S. even prior to Trump’s ascent to the presidency. In 2015, the American Chemistry Council, an oil and gas trade association, declared that a plastics “renaissance” was underway in the U.S.


fossil fuels north dakota

A pump jack operating as a drill rig sits on a well pad in the Bakken Formation in Williston, North Dakota, on March 8, 2018. Ninety-nine percent of the world’s plastics are produced from chemicals sourced from fossil fuels.


Trump’s support of natural gas and other fossil fuels has further boosted America’s plastics industry, according to Azoulay and others.

As a 2017 CIEL reports detailed, 99% of the world’s plastics are produced from chemicals sourced from fossil fuels, and the “availability of cheap shale gas in the United States is fueling a massive wave of new investments in plastics infrastructure in the U.S. and abroad, with $164 billion planned for 264 new facilities or expansion projects in the U.S. alone,” the report said.

If this investment is spent in the way that it’s intended, CIEL said, virgin plastic production is slated to increase by 33%-36% in the U.S. by 2025.

“With the current administration relying so much on a good relationship with the fossil fuel industry, you can see a pattern in their [international] negotiations ― they oppose any source of restriction or anything that would result in a tighter control on plastic, whether virgin plastic production or plastic waste,” Azoulay said. “Their policy line at this point is, basically, don’t touch the plastic industry and let them deal with these issues themselves.”

U.S. politics has for decades been heavily influenced by the fossil fuel industry, ― and the country has historically been known for its generally anti-regulatory stance in the global arena. But Jesse Bragg of the Boston-based nonprofit Corporate Accountability International said the Trump administration has been unique in its strident approach.

Even the Obama administration, which positioned the U.S. as an environmental leader and the country that spearheaded the Paris agreement, has been accused of weakening global environmental agreements, Bragg said, noting that “if you speak to most developing countries, they’ll tell you the reason the Paris agreement is as weak as it is, is because of the U.S.” But the Obama White House took pains to obscure this side of the negotiations.

The Trump administration, on the other hand, appears to have “less interest in hiding their true intentions,” Bragg said. “It doesn’t take much to see what they’re doing … and that’s a big departure from past administrations. The Trump administration doesn’t care what the world thinks.”

This attitude, Bragg warned, is a “dangerous place to be.”

“If they don’t care what their international reputation is, there’s nothing keeping the administration from continuing the obstruction that has been the [U.S.] trend for decades,” he said, “and they can operate in some dangerous ways to advance the financial interest of those in the administration ― and those supporting the administration.”

This story is part of a series on plastic waste, funded by SC Johnson. All content is editorially independent, with no influence or input from the company.

Article originally posted in Huffpost.


The post How America Is Sabotaging The Global War On Plastic Waste appeared first on Break Free From Plastic.

Research reveals Coca Cola and PepsiCo responsible for 25% of packaging pollution found on UK beaches

Photo by Andy Hughes

New research has revealed how products from just a handful of companies account for more than half of packaging pollution found on UK beaches – with Coca Cola and PepsiCo named the worst offenders.

The figures, unveiled by ocean conservation charity Surfers Against Sewage, have been submitted to government as campaigners call for transparency from the UK’s ‘biggest polluters’.

We’ve sent this data to the government, now demand it acts on plastic pollution. Sign the #GenerationSea petition: Click Here

It follows the UK’s largest ever nation-wide survey of packaging pollution found on Britain’s beaches and rivers, conducted by more than 45,000 volunteers during SAS’s recent Big Spring Beach Clean series.

And, with the results now publicly released, it has been exposed that the vast majority of UK waste found strewn across the coastline is the responsibility of just a handful of companies.

During the 229 cleans in April, 49,413 pieces of pollution were picked up, of which 20,045 were branded, with Coca Cola producing the largest proportion of branded items (15.5%), PepsiCo, which owns Walkers, made 10.3 per cent, followed by Mondelez International, which owns Cadbury, at 6.8 per cent and Nestle 5.5%.

Hugo Tagholm, Chief Executive of Surfers Against Sewage says:

‘Our survey clearly shows that big business is responsible for the scourge of plastic and packaging pollution.

Just ten companies were responsible for over half of the packaging pollution recorded. Unsurprisingly, the high street brands had headline appearances with Coca Cola, PepsiCo, Nestle and McDonald’s all gracing the top ten.

These companies must invest more in the redesign of packaging, alternative ways of product delivery and ramping up packaging re-use to truly turn the tide on the plastic pollution that is sweeping our world.”

The research has been submitted to the UK government as evidence in the consultation underway on plastic packaging and Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) in a bid to make producers (parent companies) take more responsibility for the costs of dealing with their packaging once it has been discarded.

Under the present EPR guidelines, producers ‘that handle over 50 tonnes of packaging annually and have an annual turnover over £2 million’ should be accountable for the cost and system for dealing with the packaging they create and sell.

But, currently, parent companies do not share information on the packaging they produce, hiding the scale of their damage to the environment – and paying less than 10% of the costs of dealing with it. The result is that the cost of this waste is then left in the hands of local councils, tax payers and, finally, the environment.

Each parent company has a specific brand that accounts for between 75% and 100% of its total share of branded items found on beaches and rivers.

And it turns out that every company in the top 50 polluters list – responsible for 91.6% of the branded items – has an annual turnover far greater than the £2 million threshold.

Now, SAS is urging the Government to put in place stricter rulings, saying it is critical that new EPR regulations ensure transparency in the amount of all producers packaging in order to fully hold the to account for the pollution they create.

A total of 49,413 items were recorded at 229 cleans across the UK. Photo: Richie Graham

Hugo Tagholm said:

“Producers must offer full transparency and disclosure on the amount and type of packaging they use in order that new extended producer regulation can be truly effective. Our environment is in peril and plastic pollution is a clear indicator that business as usual just won’t do.

“This is not a littering issue – business needs to provide radical and responsible new systems that drastically reduce their impact on our oceans, forests and nature at large.

“People and planet need these companies to change how they do business. At the moment, the cost of this waste is left in the hands of local councils, tax payers and, finally, the environment.

The analysis of the information collected was undertaken by independent environmental consultancy Eunomia Research & Consulting.

They found that while the top 50 companies are predominantly food and beverage manufacturers, a number of tobacco companies and companies with a wider brand portfolio – such as Unilever – also fall within the top 50.

We’ve sent this data to the government, now demand it acts on plastic pollution. Sign the #GenerationSea petition: Click Here

The analysis showed the top five parent companies tended to be made up of a small number of major polluting brands including Walkers, Cadbury, McDonalds, Coca Cola, Nestle, Pepsi and Costa Coffee.

Of the 799 brands reported, 496 had only one or two pieces of litter associated with them and were disregarded in further analysis, due to only constituting 3% of the total items. The remaining 303 brands can be mapped to a total of 171 parent companies, with the top 50 companies are responsible for 92% of the branded packaging pollution.

The remaining unbranded items collected included things like cotton buds, cigarette butts and bottle caps, as well as sweet wrappers and baby wipes – no less important, but harder to track.

The charity now hopes that this latest study will push the UK Government into making the right decision for the future of the beaches and oceans for generations to come – while also sending an important message to the companies responsible for the pollution.

To support SAS and its #GenerationSea campaign, a petition calling on Government to take stronger action against things like plastic pollution and climate change under the new Environmental Bill, click here.

Article by Hazel Murray on behalf of Surfers Against Sewage


The post Research reveals Coca Cola and PepsiCo responsible for 25% of packaging pollution found on UK beaches appeared first on Surfers Against Sewage.