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Waste exports

June 2019: An increasing number of South-East Asian countries are restricting waste imports, leading to spikes in landfill deposits and waste incineration in developed nations. However, this could encourage efforts to create a global governance framework for ‘circular’ resource management practices in the long-run.

Summary

An increasing number of South-East Asian countries are restricting waste imports, leading to spikes in landfill deposits and waste incineration in developed nations. However, this could encourage efforts to create a global governance framework for ‘circular’ resource management practices in the long-run.

Information

For decades developed countries have been exporting waste to developing nations to meet their recycling targets and to reduce landfills. Following a ban on waste imports in 2016 in China, countries such as the Philippines and Malaysia have absorbed the surplus waste exports, causing a negative impact on their population’s respiratory health and the region’s ecosystem health from landfill deposits and waste incineration. The increasing burden of social and environmental costs is now outweighing economic incentives, causing South-East Asian countries to curtail the approval of waste imports, combat illegal imports, and to restrict which waste will be accepted in specific ports. This is causing some developed nations, such as the US, to resort to  increased waste incineration and to close down some recycling programmes that relay on export to other countries and lack the necessary infrastructure, workforce, and/or technology to process waste locally.

Implications & Opportunities

The effects of limiting waste exports and having to process waste locally could incentive developed nations to: invest into waste-to-energy infrastructures, expand zero-waste choices, incentivise circular business models, adopt reusable packaging, and encourage producer responsibility, leading to the creation of new ‘green’ jobs. Simultaneously, developments in chemical recycling could support the transformation of plastics into advanced oils, solvents, and plastics, creating a new market for crude oil alternatives. Nonetheless, these transitions require profound policy changes to incentive the transition to a tglobal ‘circular economy’. The study also acknowledges that in the short run, bans on waste imports and exports will most likely lead to a surge in landfill deposits and incineration due to developed countries’ limited recycling capacities and reliance on exports.

Limitations

The study focuses on implications of China’s comprehensive ban of certain waste import, signalling a limited generalisability for regions outside South-East Asia that might still welcome waste exports due to economic incentives.


Sources

Qu, S., Guo, Y., Ma, Z., Chen, W.-Q., Liu, J., Liu, G., … Xu, M. (2019). Implications of China’s foreign waste ban on the global circular economy. Resources, Conservation and Recycling, 144, 252–255. doi:10.1016/j.resconrec.2019.01.004

The Guardian. 2019. Treated like trash: south-east Asia vows to return mountains of rubbish from west. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/may/28/treated-like-trash-south-east-asia-vows-to-return-mountains-of-rubbish-from-west

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