New trade deals heighten fears that countries in Africa and small island developing states may become the world’s next dumping ground for plastic waste. Trade agreements cannot ignore environmental commitments.
Stores in Kenya used to hand out more than 100 million plastic bags every year. The bags, which clogged its canals and waterways, were so ubiquitous that more than half of the cattle near cities and towns had plastic bags in their stomachs.
Three years ago, Kenya banned plastic bags. Anyone breaking the law can be fined up to US$38,000 (1.1 million baht) or jailed for four years, making it one of the harshest bans in the world. The impact has been clear, with the government reporting an 80% reduction in usage.
More than three dozen laws in 34 African states now restrict the use of unnecessary plastics.
Senegal just outlawed the use of plastic cups and water sachets. Kenya banned single-use plastics from the country’s protected areas in June. These herculean efforts are stemming the tide of plastic waste across the African continent. But we must be vigilant.
Our concern for vulnerable economies — in Africa, Asia and elsewhere — comes from watching a major shift take place in the global trade in plastic waste. The change is heaping pressure on countries that are poorly equipped to cope with the tsunami of plastic waste arriving on their doorstep.
The shift began in 2018, when China banned imports of plastic waste. Rich nations scrambled to find new countries to take their waste. Southeast Asia emerged as the destination of choice. But the region’s recycling industry can’t cope with the influx, especially because the plastic they receive is often the hardest to recycle.
The impacts are devastating. Failure to recycle or dispose of plastic waste properly leads to a nasty cocktail of health problems. Burning plastic waste in open-air pits releases toxic gases that cause cancer, heart disease, asthma, emphysema and damage to our nervous systems. Industrial incineration also devastates lives.
Unless we address this crisis, the trade in plastic waste will increasingly harm people in low and middle-income countries. Only 9% of plastic waste is recycled. Yet production is set to quadruple by 2050 from 2016 levels as companies seek to expand the plastics market into low and middle-income countries.
Encouragingly, Asian nations are pushing back. Last year, Cambodia returned 83 shipping containers full of waste to the US and Canada with a message that “Cambodia is not a dustbin”. Indonesia sent back hundreds of shipping containers because they were hiding plastic waste.
Islands like Fiji, the Marshall Islands, Samoa, Grenada and other Caribbean and Pacific island countries are also vulnerable to marine litter, with plastic a leading culprit. Many are taking the lead in saying enough is enough.
And, encouragingly, there are also signs that some of the world’s richest countries are waking up to the crisis too — in 2018, Norway championed that legally binding action be taken at the global level to control transboundary movements of plastic waste. Australia, for instance, recently announced plans to ban exports of plastic waste.
Rich nations must take a long, hard look in the mirror. The countries which create the bulk of the world’s plastic waste have a duty to prevent, reduce and clean up their mess. This is about much more than building more recycling plants. It is about designing products in a way that reduces waste.
It is about educating consumers so they spurn unnecessary plastics. It is about not using the developing world as a dumping ground for plastic waste. And it is about getting trade agreements right.
Governments must pursue trade deals that encourage progress on, rather than undermine action on, the three planetary crises — the climate crisis, the nature crisis and the pollution crisis. Too often, trade and environmental issues are discussed in silos, with environmental concerns sidelined or mischaracterized in trade agreements and trade sidelined or mischaracterised in environmental agreements.
Trade deals are a real opportunity to encourage the uptake of environmentally sound technologies, more robust environmental standards and circular economies that promote green exports and improve returns from green value chains. We believe the world is turning a corner. At the UN Environment Assembly, governments have resolved to work together on the plastic pollution in our seas. At the World Trade Organization, several countries have expressed interest in addressing the environmental issues related to trade, including plastic pollution.
The hard-won Plastics Waste Amendments to the Basel Convention — the international treaty regulating the transboundary movement of hazardous wastes and other wastes requiring special consideration — will further strengthen regulation. From 2021, plastic waste that is not sorted, clean, uncontaminated and easy to recycle will require the consent of importing and transit countries.
The European Union has already begun the process and is expected to adopt a law implementing this decision before the end of this year. This progress must not be rolled back. The call to action is clear: place the environment at the heart of our decision-making, and move from resolutions to action.
Inger Andersen is the Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme, Pamela Coke-Hamilton is the Executive Director of the International Trade Centre.
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