In 2020, the international police organization Interpol said it had noted coordinated efforts to export plastic, particularly to Southeast Asia, in violation of national laws.
But investigators are still struggling to track down suspicious shipments, said Ioana Cotutiu, a project coordinator for the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime who works on the illegal waste trade.
“Very often there are many middlemen and we are losing track of waste,” he said in a webinar this year. “Once he arrives in the destination country, we don’t know what happens next.”
The global recycling trade dates back at least 30 years, allowing rich countries like the US to keep the cost of recycling lower for consumers by outsourcing some of it to developing countries.
In recent years, the global trade in plastic has shrunk amid new controls by rich and developing countries alike. US plastic waste exports to Asia fell to 330 million pounds in 2021, according to government data, half their 2017 level.
But even these low volumes, environmental groups say, can overwhelm developing countries that lack the facilities to manage them. Asia is a key danger zone: according to a World Bank estimate, only about 9% of waste in the East Asia-Pacific region is recycled.
The rest goes to landfills and incinerators or into nature, with local and global consequences.
“Some in Laos see imported waste as an opportunity,” said Serge Doussant, director of Green Vientiane, an advocacy group in the Laotian capital. “But Laos doesn’t have the factories to deal with the amount of plastic waste that comes from rich countries.”
At an informal dump in Vientiane, discarded water bottles, shredded plastic bags and shards of Styrofoam were strewn along a 50-foot stretch of the Mekong River bank.
According to the World Bank, this is one of 149 known informal dumpsites in Laos. Such sites can leach plastics into the 2,500-mile Mekong and, as it travels downriver through several other countries, into the sea. Research suggests that Southeast Asian countries are among the world’s top sources of ocean plastic.
That issue came to light in 2017, when China, which had long absorbed around half of the world’s traded plastic scrap, effectively banned all imports.
Imports to Southeast Asia surged the following year, more than tripling in Malaysia, doubling in Vietnam and nearly tenfold in Thailand, according to a report. report last year by the Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime.
The reception was mixed. In China’s departure, business and political elites in other countries saw opportunities to establish a new “green” industry in plastics recycling.
But environmental activists have also documented disastrous side effects: mountains of abandoned garbage set on fire, dozens of smuggled recycling operations, and evidence of toxins in local soil and food.
Chasing transparency and hitting a wall
Headlines from Southeast Asia raised awareness in Palo Alto.
Concerned residents called on the city to require their garbage hauler, GreenWaste, to report annually how and where their recycling was handled.
The city agreed and GreenWaste complied. But as GreenWaste’s reports show, it was unable to establish full traceability.
A key reason, Palo Alto officials said, is that GreenWaste does some of the recycling through intermediaries called brokers.
Brokers do not recycle goods, but rather buy and sell them as commodities. Industry participants say they play an important role in linking waste collectors, like GreenWaste, with recycling factories around the world.
But when GreenWaste asked its brokers to specify where and with whom they did business, they refused.
Revealing those relationships would show competitors your company’s cost structure “and how to compete against us,” said William Winchester, chief operating officer of Los Angeles-based Berg Mill, one of the companies that buys GreenWaste materials.
“I understand your desire for transparency. But let me frame it another way. Should KFC reveal its original chicken recipe? Should Ben & Jerry’s tell us the secret sauce for how they make their ice cream? he said. “It is not a cover-up. It’s about protecting our relationships and how we do things.”
Palo Alto officials said they have learned two lessons from this saga.
First, they want to recycle more in the US. In May, city staff asked to divert some of Palo Alto’s waste streams to facilities in Louisiana and Southern California. The measure would increase the city’s household recycling rate to around 60%, they said.
If made permanent, the staff said, the change could increase the average citizen’s recycling bill by about $33 a year.
The second lesson, said City Manager Ed Shikada, is that Palo Alto cannot transform the global recycling system on its own.
In March, the city began discussions with other interested California cities to discuss possible reforms at the local or state level.
The group includes San Jose, the largest city in the San Francisco Bay Area, and about a dozen other Northern California municipalities.
Shikada said they could look to expand recycling capacity in California, for example, or ask lawmakers to impose new transparency requirements on companies that export recyclable products.
Winchester, of the Berg Mill, said he attended a recent meeting but left disappointed.
He said it felt like a missed opportunity to finally grapple with the “big societal questions,” the tradeoffs, that come with recycling.
Think of a question: shouldn’t developing countries decide, for themselves, how to balance environmental goals with economic gains, as China and the US once did?
“If we want to say no waste is exported and everything has to be done here, it’s not a bad concept, it’s just going to add a lot to the cost,” he said. “It goes back to what do we want as citizens? What really matters to us that we are really ready to participate with our money and time?”