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Interpol report shows increase in illegal plastic waste imports

A report by international enforcement agency, Interpol, has noted that there has been a marked increase in the illegal importation of plastics to lower Asian and eastern European countries since the China Sword policy was introduced in 2018.

Titled Emerging criminal trends in the global plastic waste market since January 2018, the report stated that before the China Sword was implemented, the Middle Kingdom took 45 per cent of the world’s plastic waste, and while these other destinations have been found, they don’t make up for the volume that China took before 2018.

This has led to a situation where there have been “requests from South and South East Asian countries to repatriate illegal containers of plastic waste, [which] have increased since 2018 but remain a long and challenging process. As a consequence, containers have been piling up in South-East Asian ports and sometimes re-exported illegally to neighbours in the region, transferring the burden of dealing with the illegal waste,” according to the report.

Most of those involved in the trade get away with it using fraudulent documentation and by the misdeclaration of plastic waste. What is compounding the issue is that there is a noticeable lack of traceability, which is making it hard to find out the source of the original waste.

The report recommends that governments within first-world countries strengthen and standardise their licensing systems; make national databases of licensed facilities; clarify the requirements from exporting countries to proceed with repatriation of the waste; enhance the use of existing communication methods; and monitor criminal trends and stimulate intelligence-based investigations.

Countries in the firing line of these illegal exports include Cambodia, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam and Thailand.

On January 1, 2021, it became illegal for 187 countries, including China, Mexico, Malaysia, India, and Indonesia that are parties to the Basel Convention, to receive a variety of mixed and contaminated plastic wastes from the United States and European Union countries.

Other shipments require the consent of the importing country before they can be legally transported.

Activist organisations such as Basel Action Network (BAN), Greenpeace, GAIA, the Environmental Investigation Agency, and The Last Beach Clean-up are concerned that these new laws alone may not stop brokers from continuing to find ways to save money by exporting plastic wastes to substandard operations abroad rather than properly managing the waste at source. Due to the massive number of containers and lack of inspection at exporting and importing ports, activist fear that the unethical waste trade is likely to continue without the major shipping lines playing a leadership role.

“For too long Australia and other wealthy nations have pointed the finger at China and South-East Asia for the global plastic pollution crisis while at the same time dumping increasing tonnages of non-recyclable, single-use plastic waste on their shores,” said Jane Bremmer from Zero Waste Australia. “Australia acted swiftly in response to this global expose by announcing a waste export ban for a range of waste materials. While this world-first legislation [Basel Convention] rolls out in Australia right now, it is clear to see that a simple shift to ‘reprocess’ this same waste into a range of exportable products like Process Engineered Fuel (PEF), Refuse Derived Fuel(RDF), Waste Derived Fuel(WDF) and plastic pellets, will in effect see the continuation of waste exports from Australia to the AP region as ‘plastic waste fuel’ and contaminated plastic feedstocks for the recycling sector.
Bremmer also stated that the explosion of plastic reprocessing facilities and waste-to-energy incinerator projects across Australia makes it clear that the Australian government’s intention is to burn plastic waste, which she said will will be an ecological and climate disaster.