Seattle, WA,  November 12, 2020 –  Recently tabulated trade statistics from the United States Commerce Department show that the US continues to export about 28,000 metric tons per month of its plastic waste to developing countries. These shipments to countries such as Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, and Vietnam continue unabated despite the fact that the vast majority of such exports will be considered illegal under international law in just two-months’ time. Yet there appears to be no plan to redirect these exports. 

Imported wastes dumped in Indonesia. Such imports are not all economic to recycle and are thus dumped and burned. Source: “Discarded” report published by GAIA, 2019.

“The US is exporting a shocking amount of plastic waste which in just a few weeks will be contraband as far as the importing countries are concerned,” said BAN’s Executive Director Jim Puckett. “The question is begged, will the states or the Federal Government act in time to prevent blatant criminal trafficking in waste?”

The plastic waste now flowing off-shore includes household and business waste collected by municipalities in blue recycling bins across the country all allegedly for benign recycling. This plastic however ends up in Asian countries, or in Mexico, where it is often not recycled at all because it is mixed with different polymer types or contaminated with unrecyclable paper, foil or debris. Or, if it is recycled the operations are crude and highly polluting. Three years ago, this North American trash almost always went to China but once China banned its import at the beginning of 2018, it began flooding into Southeast Asia countries. However, far too much of it ends up being dumped in fields or openly burned around polluting recycling facilities, which are usually located in rural farming communities.  

The United Nations Basel Convention in May of 2019 aimed to put a halt to this ugly trade. They adopted new rules that will go into force on January 1, 2021. For most countries which are Parties to the Convention, mixed and contaminated bales will have to be notified and consented to, prior to export. However, because the United States is not a Party to the Convention, its exports will all be considered illegal by importing countries due to the fact that the Convention does not allow Parties to trade with non-Parties unless an equivalent trade agreement exists between the countries. The US only has such valid agreements with Mexico and Canada. Thus, all of the exports to Asia now flowing offshore will soon be considered illegal and in Mexico and Canada notification and consent will be required.  

Currently, California leads the nation in export volumes with an average of 14,000 metric tons per month, with Texas and Illinois close behind. According to BAN, it is certain that more and more of these shipments will be seized and sent back to US ports. Such international incidents will ensue and entail costly repatriations and diplomatic clashes if US jurisdictions do not act in time to prevent all exports that violate the laws of importing countries. Municipalities and businesses all over the US can be held responsible for paying the added costs, with ratepayers ultimately penalized with rate hikes.   

“Actions to find markets for plastic waste collected in US communities should not cause harm to communities in other countries” said Jan Dell, independent engineer and California waste expert at The Last Beach Cleanup.
BAN is calling on all US jurisdictions — state, county and city to act to prevent the criminal trafficking in waste by ensuring that their waste haulers will honor the laws of importing countries and require of them full transparency as to where the public’s waste ends up. They are also calling on the Biden Administration and the new Congress to not only rejoin the Paris accords as Biden has pledged but to finally ratify and join the 1989 Basel Convention at the earliest opportunity. 

“The public not only has the right to know where their waste goes, and know that it does not violate the laws of developing countries,” said Puckett, “but they also would like to see the US join the community of responsible nations that refuse to dump waste on their global neighbors.”

Basel Action Network’s (BAN) mission is to champion global environmental health and justice by ending toxic trade, catalyzing a toxics-free future, and campaigning for everyone’s right to a clean environment. BAN’s namesake is the 1989 United Nations Basel Convention, which restricts the trade of hazardous waste between more developed countries and less developed countries.