Americans like to think they are recycling their plastic takeout containers, cutlery and fragile food bags when they drop them into these green or blue containers. But all too often, this waste is sent overseas, sometimes with the help of organized crime groups, where it clogs cities, clogs waterways, or is incinerated, filling the air with toxic chemicals.
A report released Monday by the independent Swiss research group Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime, which includes current and former law enforcement officials, sheds new light on how this waste ends up in poorer countries that have agreed not to accept it.
Building on a previous Interpol investigation, the new report depicts a network of brokers, middlemen, legitimate recycling companies and organized crime groups that move millions of tons of discarded plastic from the United States, Europe and Australia to countries in Southeast Asia and Africa.
Virginia Comolli, the main author of the report, says the illegal trade is already a serious problem and continues to grow.
“Given the current trends in our dependence on plastic – and with future projections that it may increase – we are likely to see an increase in this criminal activity as well,” Comolli added.
According to the report, data from the federal government suggests California is particularly at fault. The state’s plastic scrap this year accounted for nearly a third of all U.S. exports to developing countries and is the main source of banned plastic exports to Malaysia.
Ian Dell, a chemical engineer and founder of California-based environmental group The Last Beach Cleanup, said part of the reason for this flood of exported plastic is because there are very few recycling plants in the state for that size. It is also home to the Port of Los Angeles, the main entry point for goods from Asia to the United States. Once these shipping containers are emptied, they can be refilled with Californian plastic scrap and shipped back across the Pacific for a relatively small fee.
The report is based on interviews with law enforcement agencies around the world, regulators and industry insiders. It outlines tactics exporters use to circumvent international efforts to restrict the supply of plastic scrap from richer countries to poorer ones, such as sheltering behind several front companies and complex shipping routes that make it difficult for recipient countries to send waste back.
In 2017, China announced that it would no longer serve as a “global landfill” and stopped accepting shipments of plastic scrap.
Two years later, more than 180 countries, not counting the United States, which refused to sign the agreement, pledged to tackle plastic pollution with new controls. They agreed that rich countries can no longer export hazardous plastic waste to developing countries. The European Union has gone further by adopting stricter rules that allow the export of so-called clean, recyclable plastic waste to poorer countries.
But as Comolli found out, tons of low-quality, hard-to-recycle plastic scrap still end up in developing countries, in part because waste exporters are breaking rules.
The report said legitimate recycling companies and recycling brokers were involved in fraudulent activities, hiding shipments of illegal plastic products among other goods, illegally dumping them and paying bribes to get past inspectors. Exporters also mislabel their cargo so that plastic scrap does not comply with international agreements, hiding it from customs officials.
Many of the companies allegedly committing crimes are not mentioned in the report, often because no formal charges have been brought against them. But one example of trends in waste transportation is Biffa Waste Services, one of the largest recycling companies in the UK. In 2019, the company was fined £ 350,000, the equivalent of more than $ 470,000 to date, for sending contaminated household waste to China, which it marked as recyclable paper.
Even shipping routes used to transport plastic waste around the world often have multiple stops in different countries, so by the time the illegal shipment arrives at its final destination, it is not clear where it came from. This is preventing regulators in Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines – countries that are making efforts to ship banned plastic scrap – from returning it to its place of origin.
“This is nothing more than a traditional cat-and-mouse dynamic that is well known to police and customs officials around the world: as law enforcement tightens their grip, criminals are looking for new ways and places to carry out their activities,” reads report. “In the case of illegal waste streams, this is likely to lead to more routes towards locations with weaker enforcement capacity.”
Asia continues to be the main destination for illicit plastic scrap. But the report says Turkey and some Eastern European countries such as Poland and Bulgaria are also seeing an influx.
Romanian law enforcement has acknowledged that organized crime groups are involved in the illegal plastics trade, but this appears to be a legitimate business. The report cites an industry expert’s report on politically connected large Romanian cement companies using shell companies to import banned plastic waste.
The report says Turkey has become a “key hub” in the illegal plastic waste trade from European countries due to its liberal regulatory framework, its financial interest in generating revenue from foreign waste and the presence of criminal groups.
Once the waste reaches its destination, Comolli found that pollution researchers often did not have the technical knowledge or resources to trace it back to the source or push back layers of shell companies to identify who was trying to bring the waste into their countries. Regulators in some countries have been able to create alliances to share information, but this is still relatively rare.
Although America is one of the largest producers of plastic waste, US regulators do not play a leading role in this area. Since the US has not ratified the 2019 agreement to ship low-quality plastic scrap, US companies continue to ship waste to countries such as Malaysia and Indonesia, although these countries now illegally accept it.
Without a Congress vote to sign an international treaty, the federal government has limited ability to stop these exports.
The economic factors driving this trade are not new. It has long been cheaper for cities and towns in the US and Europe to pay exporters to ship their plastic waste somewhere other than a landfill or recycling facility. And when they sold it to a broker, they often don’t know where it ended up.
Dell said California’s waste management policy is not helping. A 2011 state law to reduce the state’s dependence on landfills set cities and counties to recycle 75% of their waste by 2020. But he doesn’t stop them from exporting them, Dell said.
Government officials “did not count and didn’t ask,“ Is there a way to recycle this material? “They just actually said to the cities,” You get it, “Dell said.
Lawmakers and environmentalists in California have called on the Biden administration to ratify the Basel Convention, an international agreement that governs the transport of plastic waste. But until that happens, the responsibility of not shipping this scrap to poorer countries depends on the voluntary commitments of cities and recycling companies.