Poor states cannot cope with high volumes of imported plastic waste

A section of River Nadarugu clogged by plastic bottles near Lake Nakuru National Park in Nakuru on June 5, 2021. [Kipsang Joseph, Standard]

The waste management sector contributes significantly to the triple planetary crisis of climate change, biodiversity, nature loss and pollution.

As plastic production increases, plastic waste is also expected to skyrocket. Estimates show that the world will produce about 26 billion tonnes of plastic waste by 2050. With the current technology, countries cannot manage this level of waste generation sustainably. Secondly, without global policies to reduce plastic production, there will continue to be an unequal exchange of plastic waste from high-income countries to non-high-income countries.

In a 2023 study by the International Pollutants Elimination Network; Plastic waste Trade investigated the second-hand trade of textiles to East Africa and found that no infrastructure can handle the high volumes of plastic waste imported as worn clothes. Textile wastes are therefore dumped widely and burned openly.

These practices result in the spread of toxic chemicals in the air, on land, and in the waters of the importing countries. Synthetic textiles can contain a wide variety of toxic chemicals, including flame retardants, bisphenols, quinoline, and benzotriazoles. Even with clear evidence of the dangers of the plastic waste trade, reporting systems frequently underestimate the volumes of plastic waste that are traded globally.

Historically, high-income countries have exported a significant amount of plastic waste under the guise of recycling. This toxic plastic waste trade does not only harm human health but also the environment locally. Despite national bans in some countries and amendments to the Basel Convention, the unequal exchange of plastic waste between high-income countries and low-income countries is estimated to continue.

It is impossible to calculate the precise volumes of plastic waste that are traded due to a lack of transparency in waste trade numbers. For instance, The UN Comtrade database provides data on international trade through a set of codes. When the plastic waste trade is analysed, the analysis is often limited to looking at the UN Comtrade code HS 3915 which has the descriptor, waste, parings, and scrap, of plastics.

Shockingly, this category only captures a subset of the total plastic waste trade for it is not designed to identify different types of materials but is more focused on product types. It does not include plastic wastes that may be coded in several other product categories.

Some of the products that are not captured in HS 3915 include synthetic textiles, rubber, plastics in e-waste, and plastic mixed in paper bales. Paper bales are exported as unsorted paper waste, with an estimate of 5-30 per cent of plastic contaminated in bales which is always not accounted for when reporting on plastic waste.

Exporting worn clothing is a way of recycling them. However, estimates show that 40 per cent of worn clothes are deemed worthless on arrival and end up in landfills. Many people think of rubber as a natural material, but most rubber products are from synthetic (plastic) rubber or a mix of natural and synthetic, as is the case with auto tires. Estimates suggest that end-of-life tires, a large waste category, will continue to grow and by 2023, 1.2 billion tires will be discarded annually.

Rubber products contain many toxicants such as PAHs and metals. Shockingly in Africa, rubber wastes are often incinerated, leading to dioxins and PCBs emissions. Some of the emissions from burning tires included dioxins, Sulphur oxides, and a range of metals including mercury.

Due to the lack of clear data on the numbers, huge volumes of plastic waste which is not accounted for find themselves in receiving nations that cannot use and manage them sustainably, thus interfering with the waste management of the nation. Imported waste affects recycling capacity and displaces domestic collection, sorting, and recycling capacities. This means that neither the waste generated within the country, nor the imported waste can be managed in an environmentally sound manner, leading to large volumes of waste ending up being dumped, left in landfills, or burned.

Due to human health concerns of exposure to toxic and harmful chemicals, plastics produced mustn't contain toxic chemicals as these chemicals are transported with plastics and plastic wastes worldwide, which hinder recycling, harm workers' health, and contaminate food chains.

Toxic chemicals then enter into food chains at sites where plastic waste is dumped, landfilled, recycled, incinerated, and burned in the open. In 2019 a study in Indonesia and the Kenya-Tanzania border collected eggs from sites where imported plastic wastes are dumped, burned for fuel, or burned to reduce their volumes. The eggs were analysed for toxic chemicals and the results showed that the eggs contained very hazardous chemicals, including chemicals that are banned internationally such as polychlorinated biphenyls.

To counter the hidden numbers, the global treaty on plastic must consider the health crisis caused by unregulated chemicals used in plastic production and effective measures to reduce plastic production for not only does it affect waste management but also it fuels climate crisis. Plastic producers should be held responsible for the harm caused to the environment and human health by plastics throughout their life cycle, including as waste. The global treaty on plastics must address plastic production by regulating the production and transportation of plastics.