Plastic waste exports have dropped almost 50% says Zero Waste Europe

Recycling exports
A container ship used to transport recycled materials

According to Zero Waste Europe (ZWE), plastic waste exports dropped almost 50% from 12.5 million tonnes in 2016, to 5.8 million tonnes in 2018. 

Data showed that Southeast Asia’s current plastic issue is the ‘pinnacle of a global experience’, with waste piling up globally and domestically for all countries involved.  


As plastic manufacturing is estimated to rise, this fall in exports in part means recyclable plastics will continue to stockpile or lead to incorrect disposal at home.  

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To measure changes to the flow of recyclable plastic waste before and after China’s import ban, Greenpeace East Asia collated import-export data from the 21 top exporters, with the UK, USA, Germany and Japan at the top, and 21 top importers of plastics scrap.  

Across the board, plastic waste exports dropped almost 50% from 12.5 million tonnes in 2016, to 5.8 million tonnes in 2018.  

Other research from Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA), of which Zero Waste Europe is a member, found that its field investigations in Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand detailed illegal recycling operations and crime syndicates.   

It also found that open burning, water contamination, crop death and a rise of illness tied to environmental pollution has led citizens to protest, and governments to implement restrictions to protect their boarders.  

Break Free from Plastic movement global coordinator Von Hernandez said: “Plastic waste from industrialised countries is literally engulfing communities in Southeast Asia, transforming what were once clean and thriving places into toxic dumpsites. It is the height of injustice that countries and communities with less capacity and resources to deal with plastic pollution are being targeted as escape valves for the throwaway plastic generated by industrialised countries.” 

ZWE said that even the export of this waste does not ensure proper disposal, as exports make their way into any country without adequate regulation to protect itself.  

One of GAIA’s field investigations in North Sumengko, Indonesia found waste piled two metres high, makeshift dumps, and open burning in the farming community.  

After China’s import ban, waste flooded into Malaysia, Vietnam, and Thailand, who all quickly set up their own import restrictions, and after this, exports flowed into Indonesia, India and Turkey.  

Greenpeace East Asia senior campaigner Kate Lin said: “Once one country regulates plastic waste imports, it floods into the next un-regulated destination. When that country regulates, the exports move to the next one. It’s a predatory system, but it’s also increasingly inefficient. Each new iteration shows more and more plastic going off grid — where we can’t see what’s done with it — and that’s unacceptable. 

“Recycling systems can never keep up with plastic production, as only 9% of the plastics ever produced are recycled. The only solution to plastic pollution is producing less plastic. Heavy plastic users — mainly consumer goods companies like Nestlé and Unilever, but also supermarkets — need to reduce single-use plastics packaging and move towards refill and reuse system to get us out of this crisis.” 

The Basel Convention will convene on April 29 to May 10 and will consider a proposal from Norway for greater transparency and accountability in the trade of plastic waste.  

This proposal states that exporters of plastic waste should receive permission from destination countries in advance.  

ZWE waste policy officer Pierre Condamine said: “Europe needs to end double standards for plastic recycling. It is time that European Member States stop exporting low-quality plastics to countries which lack the infrastructure to safely handle this waste. We cannot claim to be global leaders in the circular economy if we are off-loading our consumption problem to other parts of the world.” 

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