How Plastic Waste Shipments Undermine Real Solutions to Ocean Plastic Pollution | UN Ocean Conference Side Event
28 Jun 2022
Venue: Online | Webex
Organization: European Environmental Bureau, Break Free From Plastic, Geneva Environment Network
This official virtual side event to the 2022 UN Ocean Conference, was organized by Break Free from Plastic and the European Environmental Bureau, in partnership with the Geneva Beat Plastic Pollution Dialogues. The event took place from13:00-14:30 Lisbon time, 14:00-15:30 Geneva time.
About this Session
SDG 14 stresses the need to conserve and sustainably use the world’s oceans, seas and marine resources, yet conversations rarely touch on the plastic waste trade, wherein rich countries ship their plastic waste to weaker economies. The export of plastic waste creates the delusion of circularity for a material that is inherently linear, allowing us to perpetuate our dependence on plastics. Plastic waste shipped across the world contributes a significant amount of plastic pollution and chemical additives to the ocean — harming our health, wildlife, and ecosystems.
The panel discussion centred around the documentary “The Recycling Myth”. An access link to the documentary was provided upon registration. We explored the following questions: What are the latest trends in the global trade of plastic waste? If plastic waste trade and recycling is really the solution, why is the world pumping out more virgin plastic than ever before? How are plastic waste exports connected to marine pollution? The side event hoped to tackle this elephant in the room with a panel of experts on the waste trade.
The Geneva Beat Plastic Pollution Dialogues
The world is facing a plastic crisis, the status quo is not an option. Plastic pollution is a serious issue of global concern which requires an urgent and international response involving all relevant actors at different levels. Many initiatives, projects and governance responses and options have been developed to tackle this major environmental problem, but we are still unable to cope with the amount of plastic we generate. In addition, there is a lack of coordination which can better lead to a more effective and efficient response.
Various actors in Geneva are engaged in rethinking the way we manufacture, use, trade and manage plastics. The Geneva Beat Plastic Pollution Dialogues aim at outreaching and creating synergies among these actors, highlighting efforts made by intergovernmental organizations, governments, businesses, the scientific community, civil society and individuals in the hope of informing and creating synergies and coordinated actions. The dialogues highlight what the different stakeholders in Geneva and beyond have achieved at all levels, present the latest research and governance options.
Following the landmark resolution adopted at UNEA-5 to end plastic pollution and building on the outcomes of the first two series, the third series of dialogues will encourage increased engagement of the Geneva community with future negotiations on the matter. These include the meetings of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC) from the second half of 2022 to 2024, as well as preparatory meetings within the ad-hoc open-ended working group during the first half of 2022. The series will also continue to foster stronger cooperation and coordinated actions ahead of other milestones in the environmental agenda, including the BRS COPs, SAICM ICCM5, the 2022 UN Ocean Conference, UNEA-6 and other processes in Geneva, such as at the WTO.
Director Global Policies and Sustainability, European Environmental Bureau
Associate Professor, Cukurova University, Türkiye
Program Development Manager, ECOTON, Indonesia
Campaign Coordinator, National Toxics Network, Australia
Chemical Engineer & Founder of The Last Beach Cleanup, United States
Co-Director of The Recycling Myth, Germany
Pui Yi WONG
Waste Trade Coordinator, Break Free From Plastic - Asia-Pacific
Pui Yi WONG| Waste Trade Coordinator, Break Free From Plastic – Asia-Pacific
Break Free From Plastic is a global movement of over 2500 organizations that envision a future free from plastic pollution. The movements aims to put forward real solutions to the plastic problem and strongly advocates for phasing out plastics completely. It focuses on addressing plastic pollution throughout the life cycle, from fossil fuel extraction to waste management and disposal.
In conjunction with the UN Ocean Conference, Break Free From Plastic has launched the global campaign #StopShippingPlasticWaste. The petition aims to end waste exports from rich to weaker economies, as a crucial step to reduce plastic pollution and protect communities from the impacts of the plastic waste trade, as the panel of this event will outline. This initiative is inspired by the 2021 Shipping Lines Campaign and it supported by 15 global and regional organizations.
Patrizia HEIDEGGER | Director Global Policies and Sustainability, European Environmental Bureau
It is time to call out the myth of plastic recycling, to put an end to trade of plastic waste around the world, and to curb the source of marine plastic pollution. The documentary “The Recycling Myth” really exposures that our Western recycling systems are defunct when it comes to plastic waste. They are linked to regional and global and criminal plastic waste trade, which results in dumping and burning of plastic waste and ultimately in plastic and microplastic pollution in the ocean and other environment. Research has clearly shown the significant link between the global trade of plastic waste and the impact on marine environments.
If recycling is really the solution, why is the world pumping out more virgin plastic than ever before? Plastic production is growing year by year and the reality is most plastic is not recycling. Rather than the sustainable circular economy that we want, this is an extension of the toxic trade between richer and weaker economies that we have been witnessing for decades. Waste importing countries are either located in the Global South or in poverty pockets within richer regions. None of them have an effective waste management infrastructure to deal with their own waste, let alone the waste others are dumping on them.
In 2019, an estimated 225 containers of plastic waste per day were shipped from the United States along to countries with poor waste management systems. The global situation is definitely waste colonialism. It benefits a few and has horrendous impacts on local communities, health, and marine and terrestrial environments. It is a question of global environmental justice, not only a technical question of waste management.
Ending plastic exports and ensuring local solution to waste management is important to reduce the risks of plastic and microplastic pollution in rivers, the ocean and all other environments. We need better laws that restrict the global plastic waste trade and close legal loopholes. We need shipping companies to stop being complacent with plastic trade, and we need regulation to drastically reduce plastic production and move toward zero-waste models.
Statistics from 2021 showed that the exports of waste from the EU to non-EU countries reached 33 million tons, a figure that has increased by 77% since 2004. These are a mix of all kinds of materials, including plastics. Intra-European waste trade from richer to weaker States with no sufficient waste management capacity is also a problem. Last year, the European waste shipment regulation was revised, thus improving rules and regulations on waste exports. However, we need to do more to reduce the amount and to mitigate the consequences of European waste exports. We cannot let the argument of reuse and recycle open legal loopholes. In Europe, we need to ensure that we reuse and recycling our own waste as close as possible to the source. No waste, especially plastic waste, should be shipped to non-EU countries, especially not where there’s no prior scrutiny on whether these countries have equivalent standards for environmentally sound waste management.
We need to better address the possible confusion between waste and reuse. We also need to close or loopholes between using fake reuse statutes to illegally export waste, which is still happening. When we export products to be reused to receiving countries, we need to ensure that the extended producer responsibility schemes travel with the product. Finally, we also need to ensure full public traceability of waste trade: no waste should ever be shipped without having its journey, and the relevant shipment actors, documented and publicly available.
Waste trade is not as a technical problem about improving waste management. It’s about human rights. It is a question of environmental justice. We need to ensure rights-based solutions to stop the trade of plastic waste.
Sedat GÜNDOĞDU | Associate Professor, Cukurova University, Türkiye
In 2016 I started to work on microplastic pollution in North-eastern Türkiye. Türkiye has a big microplastic pollution problem because there is no effective waste management. But this is only one side of the problem. There are some specifically shredded plastics distributed on coasts and on the surface of the Mediterranean Sea. I decided to track the source of these plastics. The city where I live is a very large agricultural production plane, and there are many large irrigation canals that connect all this water. These canals are connected to the Mediterranean Sea. Around that area, there are two large rivers, the most polluted in the Mediterranean area. In the canals and rivers, plastics in the form of greenhouse films and packaging from the industrial application could be found. In the journey to trace the source of this plastic, we found some illegal dumping grounds, where billions of microplastics were just dumped. These microplastics navigate rivers and canals and then end up in the Mediterranean Sea. Illegal dumping grounds were found in the proximity of canals where water is used for agricultural irrigation. Some of the plastics dumped are burned as 30% of plastics that Türkiye imports are not recyclable. Many European countries dump their plastic waste in Türkiye, explaining why these rivers rank highest in microplastic pollution. Türkiye imports more plastic waste than its own collected waste on a national scale. Microplastics in the canals represent a major issue for agriculture as they sometimes clog irrigation pipes.
Daru SETYORINI | Program Development Manager, ECOTON, Indonesia
ECOTON has been involved in conservation and fighting for environmental justice for more than 20 years. Plastic waste shipment undermines real solutions to ocean plastic pollution and Indonesia is blamed as the second-largest contributor of plastic waste leakage into the world ocean. It could be true because waste management service in Indonesia only covers 10% of the total population and rivers have been used as dumps that will release plastic leakage into the sea and ocean. The “Recycling Myth” documentary shows that plastic recycling is a hoax. Plastic recycling is very polluting and expensive, and only 9% of total global plastic produced is being recycled. People in high-income countries produce more plastic trash per capita and try to keep their country clean by shipping their plastic tracks in the guise of recycling and a circular economy. In doing so, they claim it is good for the economy of people in the destination countries like Indonesia, Malaysia, India and Thailand. Plastic waste is shipped in Indonesia inside paper bales. Every year, Indonesia imports more than 3 million pounds of waste paper mixed with plastic from Italy, the UK, the USA, the Netherlands, Australia and New Zealand. Paper mills are located in the proximity of rivers, which supplies drinking water for more than 15 million people. This release of microplastics and chemicals into water is on top of that released by plastic waste import. Microplastic has been found in all water samples, seafood and even in human feces. The biggest illegal landfill covers an area of 28 hectares and it is ten meters high. and send me the height of the imported plastic pile.
Jane BREMMER | Campaign Coordinator, National Toxics Network, Australia
When we discuss the global crisis of plastic pollution, we need to go further and decolonize materials production systems. The inherent problem with the waste trade is that we export materials that are often highly toxic and hazardous. Therefore, waste exporting is waste colonialism. Plastic is a fossil fuel-based material containing many chemicals, classified as hazardous. Plastic is a chemical complex whose threat comes from the invisible substances being left behind from the raw materials during production, disposal, dumping and incineration. The opening ceremony of the UN Ocean Conference hosted the head of Veoliaon the opening panel, one of the biggest incineration corporations on the planet. Australia passed one of the first bans on waste exports. This means that Australia cannot export plastic unless it is a single polymer. We worked with the International Pollutants, Elimination Network (IPEN) within Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines on a project to assess the impacts on receiving Asia Pacific countries. We found there is a huge policy, regulatory and legislative agenda to rebrand Australia’s waste as a fuel and continue to export it. The idea is that turning waste into a commodity and a product will allow us to trade it more easily. This approach to waste trade and waste management needs to be exposed. Significant amounts of money in Australia are going into energizing the resource recovery setback. It concerns me to see Veolia on the opening panel of the UN Ocean Conference because the growth in the refuse-derived fuel (RFD) industry is quite in lockstep with the push for incineration industries in the Asia Pacific region. We are seeing that Australia is going to play a major role in that, and it will come to Asia-Pacific countries as aid and support.
Jan DELL | Chemical Engineer & Founder of The Last Beach Cleanup, United States
Burning plastic waste is one of the most polluting and expensive ways to make energy. It burns a highly complex mixture of chemicals contained in the waste. Waste refuse-derived fuel does not have a waste trade code, making it impossible to monitor and measure how much RFD is being shipped. RFD is mainly residual waste, which contains high levels of single-use, non-recyclable plastic. These plastics are non-recyclable because they are multi-layered and full of chemicals. Residual refuse-derived fuel is basically just residual waste, which is compressed into pellets and used in this way. This is the dirtiest way to generate energy and manage waste. In comparison to other fuels, like cold oil and gas, its air pollution profile is significantly higher in heavy metals and a whole range of other toxics. We should be very concerned about the pollution that comes from burning RDF because it generates persistent organic pollutants (POPs), forever chemicals. These are chemicals that go into the ocean that can terminate the marine food chain. They violate the human rights of indigenous peoples all over the world over.
Some true progress to fight plastic pollution, showing that a small group of people can accomplish something. The circular economy of plastics is the greatest greenwashing hoax of all time. Corporations are lying to us. Plastic has never been recyclable and will never be. The very nature of plastic makes it toxic and not recyclable. I spent 35 years working around the world for the very companies that use polyethene and polypropylene and then turn them into cups sold by fast-food chains. In 2018, when I saw the explosion of new plastic coming onto the planet, and the lies being told by the plastics industry that all this was collectable and recyclable, I decided to leave my corporate career. I founded an NGO called The Last Beach Clean Up and bring my chemical engineering skills to shed truth to this situation and stop this massive amount of plastic pollution that is choking our planet. Plastic is not recyclable and we are being lied to. The Terracycle program example presented in The Recycling myth is quite telling of this situation. I successfully sued Terracycle for stopping the lies around plastics’ recyclability and to push people to realize we must move to reusable systems and materials that are unharmful to the planet.
Around 2018, the Terracycle and recyclable labels boomed on all products in the USA. As a chemical engineer, it was easy to understand that it is impossible to transform all these products into something else. As people had been waiting years for having their products collected, which is illegal as you cannot offer something to the public that says this is available for everyone, our lawsuit was successful. Terracycle agreed to change its labels and not claim anything is 100% recyclable. They took off the word recyclable, which is a minor symbolic victory. This does not change the attitude of most countries that act as waste imperialist, shipping waste and pretending it is recycled. We must stop this. We should not be banning all types of plastics. In the medical field and beyond there are not very good uses for plastics. What we should ban are plastics that are excessive, non-recyclable and which can be substituted.
Benedict WERMTER | Co-Director of The Recycling Myth, Germany
The purpose of the Recycling Myth documentary is to show that recycling is not what the public beliefs. Some plastic gets recycled becoming new PT bottles or running shirts for example, but the percentage of this is just too low. Downcycling applications are more or less useful and come at a cost. For this film, we investigate extensively on a separate industry for a couple of years. The documentary wants to unveil this myth and those criminal networks are a consequence, or an outcome of bad plastics that have been put on the market in the industries. A huge take of material goes in and just goes out as a dumping material, which the Western world is more eager to ship around the globe than deal with at home. There is a demand for this material as well. To carry out the investigation, we set up a website, business cards and a phone to appear as brokers ourselves. We found sources who did this for some years and who told us how waste shipping is happening. It sounds a bit complex in the beginning, but in the end, we came up with the findings presented in the documentary. It is actually quite easy to smuggle material around the globe. The industries tell us this is the black sheep syndrome. Criminals are the exception while Interpol has this under control. The interviewees from the EU told us that waste is a multibillion-dollar market. There must be a structural problem.
The black market for plastic waste is a brokerage system connecting first world and third world waste, installing a sort of colonial waste system. Not everybody involved in this is part of an organized crime. Some of them have a legit business, they comply with rules, but maintaining a proper business can be complex. In our experience in Bulgaria, it is clear that bribery takes place and the sensitivity and awareness towards waste disposal is lower than in other first world countries. Brokers in Turkey expressed their awareness that material at some point might get leaked. This is due to both cheating on the actual loading and on capacities on certification schemes in third world countries. In Germany, 20% of waste goes to facilities other EU countries and in third world countries. These facilities must be certified as they tend to get a higher capacity license than what they actually have. The aim of the documentary is to show what is behind the recycling myth. Both illegal and legal shipments hinder local waste from being collected and recovered. That must be fixed. The situation of recycling should open the eye to consumers in Northern countries and influence the choices of decision makers and brands who deploy this material.
Q: Is there a chance that the new global plastic treaty would ban the trade? If waste is banned, what do you foresee will happen in exporting and importing countries?
Sedat Gündoğdu: The plastic treaty has the potential to set new rules on the waste trade, but it depends on how we provide scientific evidence on the environmental and ecosystem effect as well as results on local waste management. Türkiye collects only 10% of plastic waste that generates in municipal operations. The amount of plastic waste that the country import is almost three times higher than the country’s own collected plastic waste. If we succeed to ban plastic waste exports to other countries, importing countries will have more substantial opportunities to put in place proper local waste collecting services. This can contribute to the development of strategies to decrease waste plastic in the first place. Türkiye is the most polluted country in the Mediterranean region. This must be changed and it will be possible to do so only with a total ban on plastic waste input. These represent the main source of microplastic released to the environment, which blocks wastewater tracking systems and poisons our health. The halt of this process is what we expect the ban to have an effect on in Türkiye. This must be coupled with pressure on industries. I am confident that these actions will be more successful at this time as the combination of scientific evidence and cases of environmental justice debating the toxic effects of the waste trade and microplastics are becoming more prominent.
Q: What do you think about the practice of exporting plastics from developed to developing countries? What are the possibilities arising from the halt of this practice?
Jan Dell: Exporting plastic waste is a wrong practice as materials that are not recyclable in one country will not be anywhere. Exporting plastic means outsourcing the issues connected to it elsewhere. This explains why developing countries are now struggling with microplastics and contaminated waters. California is now flooding Mexico with plastic waste because it is harder and harder to ship it to Asia. This means shorter dispersion of plastic takes place, but the practice remains non-transparent, environmentally unsound, and problematic. It is unethical to ship unrecyclable waste to some country that has no environmental laws and which can steal from people the freshwater needed to process it.
Q: The industry claims that banning waste exports is incompatible with a circular economy. Recycling plastic requires plastics to move. What’s your take on that?
Jane Bremmer: The conversation about the plastic circular economy cannot be about materials that cannot be recycled. Waste problems cannot be solved at the waste end of the problem. We must not have to start thinking about waste when it has already reached the phase of being waste. The plastic pollution problem is at a planetary scale now, and it requires acting quickly to cap production. We cannot continue to be producing plastic at the current rates. The industry is saying they will increase volumes while the planet is chugging to death on plastic. We must recognize that what drives the problem of plastic recycling lies in its composition, which is inherently full of toxicity. Plastic has to be redesigned by removing the toxins in the process. There cannot be a circular economy if zero-waste systems are not in place. We need to go right back to the basics. Cap production, eliminate toxins, redesign for circularity and start to build a circular economy based around zero waste systems.
Q: What does a zero-waste model consist of? What alternative does it present? How can a phase-out of plastic be done?
Daru Setyorini: We need to ban global plastic waste shipment because it is an unfair practice that allows colonialism to endure. It robs the salaries and health of local recycler workers. If we can implement a ban, then importer countries can encourage the improvement of local waste management systems. Besides waste management systems, plastics upstream must be changed through a ban on toxic chemicals used to produce them. Producers must be pushed to replace single-use plastic with reusable and refillable materials. Upstream and downstream must go parallelly. Zero-waste programs in the downstream phase can take place when producers have changed their practices and governments push households to segregate waste at the source. Waste can be divided at least into organic or non-recyclable to ensure a cleaner recycling system. This can produce benefits also in water usage, avoiding high consumption for recycling.
Q: What can technologies like pyrolysis do to deal with plastic waste? Is there any country that has a good plastic waste management system?
Jan Dell: The chemical industry has been promoting advanced chemical recycling solutions since 1994. Every time the world gets worried about plastic waste and pollution, the plastics industry trots out new advanced technologies, like pyrolysis, which never work. Both pyrolysis and gasification burn plastic waste, forcing us to buy new plastic instead. ìPyrolysis has two major fallacies. It requires enormous amounts of heat and energy to burn, and it cannot be used for mixed plastic waste. Pyrolysis can have no PET and no PBC but that is omnipresent in household waste. The newest trend is the pyrolysis of industrial plastic scrap. Clean scraps are turned into pyrolysis oil, sent to a polypropylene refinery, and then made into a polypropylene cut with recycled content. That cut is claimed to be part of a circular waste program but it is fake. Pyrolysis has never worked on mixed plastic and its limited availability on industrial scraps is an unnecessary distraction.
Q: How should alternative materials like biodegradable and compostable plastic be considered?
Benedict Wermter: Some sorts of bio-sourced and biodegradable materials can be a part of the solution to plastic pollution, but it is generally preferred not to become dependent on other types of packaging a rather to reduce total packaging. There is the risk that these materials might propose a greenwashing discourse as much as plastic. Paper and cardboard have a higher recycling rate, but their production is energy-intensive, having both pros and cons. Everybody needs to be more conscious while purchasing products and try to simply avoid unnecessary material.
Sedat Gündoğdu: We have underestimated the negative consequences of the use of plastics in the past decades and now we have to solve a huge problem. Plastic is in both marine and terrestrial environments and is ubiquitous in our lives. We are not controlling plastics; plastics are controlling our lifestyle. There is no single solution to tackle this problem, bioplastics or compostable plastic are not solutions to the consumption culture. Each country has to deal with its own waste and if plastic is recyclable, it should be recycled in the country of origin. Waste trade is not effective waste management. It is unfair and a form of colonialism.
Daru Setyorini: We must prevent plastic pollution because plastic contains a lot of toxic substances. These are linked to cancer, brain damage and infertility. They are already poisoning the air, soil and our own bodies. Plastic contaminates our food chain with dioxins and hormone disruptors, and this is due to the mismanagement of imports from Northern countries. We need a global ban on plastic waste shipment because it leads to illegal dumping. If we keep on producing more plastic and dumping it into our rivers and ocean, it will kill the marine biota. The solution for ocean plastic pollution is clear. We need to stop subsidies for fossil fuel energy to reduce the volume of plastic that will be produced and rather invest in safer and more sustainable alternatives. Plastic makers must be held financially responsible for the harm of the plastic pollution they created.
Jane Bremmer: We are just finally waking up to the global climate threat and realizing this is not the time to be burning plastic. Plastic waste shipments are increasing greenhouse gas emissions because of burning plastic. These also raise deep colonial issues for the receiving countries, as they are accepting it since they lack regulations and all the technologies to safely recycle. Plastic waste is an environmental justice issue and an issue of health considering its embedded chemical threats. What comes under the guise of plastic recycling are chemicals and health issues. Most OECD countries claim that their preferred option is to burn plastic and it will be the next huge climate bomb.
Jan Dell: We can change this. We know the truth and the facts on our side. Plastic is not recyclable, it is toxic waste. It should not be put on ships and sent to other countries. We can demand change and make a difference. We should never estimate the power of one little mosquito in a room to cause change.
Benedict Wermter: The recycling myth documentary could have been filmed 30 years ago when extended producer responsibility started to spread across European countries. Not much has changed since then. There are more waste and waste shipments. As a journalist, I am not in the position to advocate for a specific ban or not. In my opinion, the discussion is more about global supply chains. People leading the industry must reflect on the utility of shipping plastic around the world because it impacts them anyways. We need smart solutions in every country, and to use local supply chains, and feedstock to beat plastic pollution.
Pui Yi Wong: Exporting waste in the guise of recycling and then burning it only lead to creating more plastics. We need to tackle plastic pollution at the source, at the design and production stages. The UN Ocean Conference is advocating for science-based solutions to marine pollution. These must be coupled with human-rights-based approaches and centered around communities. We need to think about people to think about nature.
Find more highlights of the event on our Twitter.
"If recycling is really the solution, why is the world producing more virgin plastic?"
Asking the difficult question, Patrizia Heidegger (@P_Heidegger) of @Green_Europe shows the interlinkages between global trade, #plasticwaste and #plasticpollution in the #ocean. pic.twitter.com/8ACkso7LmB
— GENeva Environment Network (@GENetwork) June 28, 2022
- Towards the UN Ocean Conference | From Geneva to Lisbon
- Geneva Beat Plastic Pollution Dialogues
- Plastics and the Environment | Series of online resources on the impacts of plastic pollution on people and the planet, the current activities ongoing in Geneva and beyond to address the plastic crisis, with the latest scientific findings and news on the matter.
- Break Free From Plastic Asia-Pacific Waste Trade Project