Every year the US sends thousands of tons of plastic waste to Latin America. Mexico, El Salvador and Ecuador are the main recipients of waste that is largely unsuitable for recycling. Loopholes in international regulations lead to the shipment of dangerous electronic scrap.
Every year, millions of tons of plastic waste leave the United States, by sea or land, bound for Latin American countries to be recycled, in theory. But a group of civil society organisations in different parts of the region denounce that recycling is just a pretext used by the North American country to destroy waste that is not suitable for recycling, and send it to developing countries, taking advantage of their lack of regulation and customs control.
Although the phenomenon has existed for years, in 2018 there was a radical change in the geopolitical waste chessboard that sharpened the trade of plastic waste from developed to undeveloped countries.
In January of that year, China, which received 45 per cent of the world’s plastic waste, imposed import restrictions on 24 types of solid waste, including plastics.
The transboundary flow of plastic waste by mainly the United States and Europe then had to change routes in search of new territories. In this realignment, Southeast Asian countries such as India, Indonesia, Vietnam and Malaysia became the new destinations for the thousands of tonnes previously imported by China.
But they were not the only ones. Civil society organisations from the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA) have documented over the past three years that China’s decision is also spilling over to Latin America, especially Mexico, El Salvador and Ecuador, which have become – in less than four years – the emerging recipients of US plastic waste.
“Much waste ends up in untraceable destinations, incinerated, buried or recycled under conditions that would never be approved in the exporting countries.
“It’s waste colonialism,” says GAIA in its most recent report, published on 15 September 2022. “While major world powers boast about their recycling figures, much of this sustainable paradise is fuelled by shipping hundreds of containers full of plastic waste to other countries.”
The GAIA report says that, at best, this waste is recycled, but in many other cases it “ends up in untraceable destinations, incinerated, buried or recycled in conditions that would never be approved in the exporting countries”, and causing health problems for the collecting communities.
This false recycling is possible because Latin American countries have the conditions that allow it: they generally have weak controls on waste imports, a lack of customs controls, insufficient infrastructure for recycling, opaque links between governments and recycling companies, and a lack of data on waste imports and exports.
All of these factors have made the region ironically fertile ground for receiving other people’s waste, disguised as “recyclable waste”, with virtually no restrictions.
Data from the US Import/Export Census Bureau shows that in 2020 and 2021 the US exported 200,000 tonnes of plastic waste to Latin America. The GAIA report reports that most of it went to three countries: Mexico received 147,897 tonnes; El Salvador, 20,975; and Ecuador, 12,791 tonnes.
The waste includes ethylene, styrene, PVC, polyethylene terephthalate bottles, better known as PET, and “other or mixed plastics”, but there is no exact information on the composition of the imports, nor on how many of these plastics were recycled and how many ended up accumulated, buried or incinerated.
The problem has even alerted the International Criminal Police Organisation (Interpol). In an August 2020 report, the organisation detected that the shipment of plastic waste was starting criminal patterns: it was falsely declared as “destined for recovery”, or as “non-hazardous”, when in fact it was contaminated or mixed with other waste streams.
In that report, Interpol found that the waste sector “suffers from a range of illegal activities, perpetrated in a more or less organised way in order to make profits by impeding the costs of proper waste treatment or by creating illegal and profitable business opportunities”.
Several situations are allowing a new colonisation of Latin America through plastic waste. And one of them is the loopholes in international regulations.
“Recycling”, a route to evade the Basel Convention
Exactly 30 years ago, in 1992, the United Nations Environment Programme’s Basel Convention came into force, which sought to get all signatory countries to limit the transboundary movement of hazardous wastes in order to protect the environment and human health.
The Convention was a response to a phenomenon that was occurring in the 1980s: ships from developed countries dumped toxic waste in developing countries such as Nigeria, the Philippines and Haiti in exchange for attractive payments.
Many years afterwards, in 2019, the Ban Amendment took effect, which rightly prohibited developed countries from exporting hazardous waste to developing countries.
It was not until January 2021 that the Plastic Waste Amendment came into force, which states that before exporters send “contaminated, mixed or non-environmentally sound plastic waste for recycling”, they must obtain the consent of the receiving countries, and the receiving countries have the right to refuse.
This is the key to what is happening now. As there is a possibility that recipient countries may refuse to receive them, some exporting and importing companies have found a way around the rule: on the one hand, they declare the waste as destined for recycling, and on the other, they avoid the controls (if any) to verify that it is suitable for recycling.
It is a fool proof formula: exporting countries thus get rid of waste that is difficult and costly to recycle, and importing companies in destination countries get paid for this recycling without having to prove that they actually do it. All in full view of governments that have no control or interest in assessing what is being transported where.
According to GAIA’s 2020 report, “companies in high-income countries have been exporting mixed, heavily contaminated, and often non-recyclable plastic waste abroad to avoid the costs of redesigning, developing Extended Producer Responsibility laws or recycling infrastructure, among others”.
This is also a result of recycling in the US becoming increasingly expensive. The Interpol report notes that “US recycling facilities have significantly increased their processing fees” due to “higher levels of impurities in the plastic waste treated in the country”.
One example is a major recycling plant, located in Alabama, which, according to Interpol, has doubled its processing fees from US$30 to US$65 per tonne as of October 2019. So, it is cheaper and easier to ship it elsewhere, such as Mexico.
But plastic waste is not the only waste that is imported outside of international regulations. The Basel Convention, specifically the Guidelines on the Transboundary Movement of Electronic Waste, has other loopholes that are resulting in the export of highly hazardous e-waste with “repair” fines.
In point 12, these Guidelines agree that many used electrical and electronic equipment are exported to developing countries “supposedly for re-use”, but a high percentage of them “are not suitable for further use or are not marketable and must be disposed of as waste in the receiving countries”.
Delegates from the Basel Action Network warned in a statement issued a few days ago that “while one exporter claims that its e-scrap containers are destined for repair, all authorities can look the other way, as Basel does not apply”.
They also stress that this “loophole” in the law must be fixed and discussed at the 11th meeting of the Parties to the Basel Convention, which will take place in Geneva, Switzerland, in May 2023, as “the status quo is already unacceptable,” they say.
Mexico: the dumping ground of its northern neighbour
No other country in the region has received as many tonnes of plastic waste from the United States in recent years as Mexico. According to data from Mexico’s Foreign Trade Internet Tariff Information System (SIAVI), the 58,243 tonnes of plastic waste the country received in 2017 rose to 130,316 tonnes in 2021.
But more than the quantities, it is the form in which it enters the country that matters. GAIA’s 2022 report says that “it is possible that much plastic waste is entering from the United States through the land border, with little or no customs controls”.
Lawyer and human rights advocate Darinka Carballo agrees because she has seen dozens of anonymous trucks constantly unloading waste in settlements located a few kilometres from Tijuana, Baja California, in northern Mexico and bordering California, which is by far the US entity that exports the most plastic waste to Mexico.
One such settlement is El Pueblito. “It is an irregular population settlement that has no public services, about 500 metres from where the rubbish trucks, both from the Tijuana City Hall and unmarked vehicles, go and dump,” Carballo reports. She estimates that there may be 400 people living in El Pueblito “in very poor conditions, without hygiene, without health services”.
Throughout the area, “you can see bonfires, and people squatting, completely blackened, with plastic and copper broken apart, they burn the plastic and keep the copper, which is the most expensive thing they can sell”, says the lawyer.
There is no data on the health conditions of the inhabitants of El Pueblito, but Carballo claims that many of these families permanently inhale the smoke produced in the incinerations, so they could be breathing dioxins and other related compounds.
A review on plastic incineration, published in 2019 by researchers at the Federal University of Technology in Nigeria, warns that “fumes from plastic waste release halogenated additives and polyvinyl chloride, while furans, dioxins and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) are released from plastic incineration into the environment”.
Contact with them can cause irritation to the eyes or respiratory tract, but also more serious effects such as carcinogenic effects or damage to bones, liver, nervous, digestive or respiratory systems. Without health services and medical monitoring, it is impossible to know if the people of El Pueblito have any of these conditions.
In any case, they will not be the only ones affected. The same article states that, “in the process of incinerating plastics, soot, ash and various dusts are produced and deposited on plants and soil, with the potential to migrate into the aquatic environment”.
It is because of examples such as El Pueblito that members of civil society are demanding that the Mexican government stop the illegal import of plastic and electronic waste from the United States, but the government has chosen to promote it, arguing that it will be an economic opportunity for the country.
Members of the civil associations Acción Ecológica, Asociación Ecológica Santo Tomás and Fronteras Comunes made 65 requests for information at the federal level on the entry of plastic waste into the country through various ports, of which only four have had partial responses.
According to the report of these associations, cited in GAIA’s 2022 report, neither the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources nor the Federal Attorney General’s Office for Environmental Protection have information related to this movement of plastic waste, so there is no certainty about its danger, nor the final destination of plastic waste imports once it enters the country.
“Where are these plastics that are being imported going? Are they going to cement factories, to landfills, to clandestine dumps? We don’t know. We have asked municipal governments and state governments. Nobody knows who is recycling imported plastic waste here in Mexico,” José Manuel Arias, a member of Asociación Ecológica Santo Tomás AC and one of the authors of the Mexico case report, tells SciDev.Net.
Arias is convinced that “it is necessary to dismantle the public policy that promotes Mexico as a dumping ground for our northern neighbour. Only citizen power can achieve this and we are working on it”.
Ecuador: opaque links between business and government
In June 2019, the Ecuadorian government issued a press release in which it assured: “Ecuador is not, nor will it be, a recipient of rubbish from any country in the world”. It was its response to a journalistic report on global plastic waste flows that included the country as the only Latin American country on the list of the 13 largest recipients of this waste by the UN.
But the most recent data, published in February 2022 by the Zero Garbage Alliance of Ecuador, in coordination with GAIA, show the opposite: between 2018 and January 2022, Ecuador imported 48,473 tonnes of plastic waste that entered the country by maritime transport; of these, 27,338 tonnes (57 percent) came from the United States, making it the third Latin American country that imported the most waste from that country.
The researchers in charge of the study, María Fernanda Solíz Torres of the Simón Bolívar University in Quito and investigative journalist Susana Morán Gómez, members of the Zero Garbage Alliance of Ecuador, state in their report that 75 per cent of the plastic waste that entered the country under tariff heading 3915 was classified as “plastic waste”, an ambiguous classification that prevents them from knowing in greater detail the type of waste that enters Ecuador.
“The government has consistently denied that Ecuador imports plastic waste. In reality, what it says is that the state does not import, but that Ecuadorian companies recycle the vast majority of it,” Morán Gómez tells SciDev.Net.
That is the essence of the problem, because the recycling companies “consider that they are doing work in favour of the environment by recovering waste or even importing it for their production processes, and in that they agree with the state. So, the government gives them a lot of protection,” explains Morán.
In his book La partida 3915. Imports of plastic waste in Ecuador, published in 2021, Fernanda Solíz exposes that in 2020 the national government, through the National Customs Service of Ecuador, “padlocked the data related to companies that export waste”, using the pretext that it was personal information that should have been requested from each company.
So Soliz did. Together with Susana Morán, they contacted the 13 most important recycling companies in the country in search of information on the type and volume of their plastic imports. Most of the companies refused to provide information.
The few that did provide information confirmed several inconsistencies about the importation of plastics. One example is irrigation pipes used in the US agricultural industry, brought in by the country’s leading plastics importer.
“The managers acknowledged that this type of agricultural waste comes into Ecuador very dirty. For example, if they import 10 kilos, 5 kilos are dirt, because the irrigation pipes are in the ground and North American farmers do not take the work of washing the pipes to send them to underdeveloped countries like Ecuador. So here, the businessmen bring these dirty plastic pipes and wash them with our own natural resources,” Morán stresses.
“It is much easier for the entrepreneurs to import than to promote recycling practices or to strengthen grassroots waste pickers.
In a written response to SciDev.Net, Ecuador’s Ministry of Environment, Water and Ecological Transition states that, based on the Single-Use Plastics Law, the import of plastic waste is prohibited. However, there is a “temporary dispensation”, whose enforcement mechanism was published on 3 October 2022.
This dispensation allows the import of plastic waste provided that three requirements are met: “1. When the only purpose is the use; 2. When there is the technical and technological capacity for the use and with this the adequate environmental management is guaranteed, and 3. Until the national demand is satisfied, prioritising that the effective availability of plastic waste generated in the country has been exhausted”.
According to research by the Alianza Basura Cero de Ecuador, these requirements have not been met, as these companies claim that they import plastics for their own production processes when, according to various Ecuadorian entities, more than 90 percent of the waste is buried. The irony seems obvious: companies import plastics for recycling when there is an excess of plastics in the country that are not recycled.
“It is much easier for businessmen to import than to promote recycling practices or to strengthen the grassroots waste pickers that exist in the city,” says Morán.
Government-business linkages also have an impact on customs inspections. The researchers note that in 2021 the Ecuadorian government did some inspections, but without much success because, on the one hand, they were done on land shipments, when 94 per cent of plastic waste imports happen by sea. On the other hand, they were isolated efforts that were suspended due to pressure from the companies.
“To date, there is no report, at least not publicly, that these inspections have been carried out and that they have effectively verified that everything they imported was used in their production chains by the companies,” says Morán.
Argentina and Chile: different waste, similar patterns
Although Mexico and Ecuador, as well as El Salvador, for which there is not yet much data, have been the emerging recipients of US plastic waste, that does not mean that there are not similar signs in other countries.
In Argentina, for example, Alianza Basura Cero obtained data from the National Directorate of Substances and Chemical Products (DNSyPQ) showing a considerable increase in imports of PET waste (the only type of plastic waste they report): in 2011- 2015, 200 tonnes of PET waste were imported, while in 2016-2020 there were 1,864 tonnes.
Most of this comes from the US and Brazil, and is imported by packaging companies such as Tetra Pak, Petropack, Dupont and Dak Americas.
There is no data on increases in imports of other plastic waste, but Cecilia Bianco, an engineer and Toxics Coordinator at Taller Ecologista in Argentina, says the pattern is the same as in Ecuador: the country imports waste that is abundant in the country. “It is unfair to import paper, cardboard and plastic waste, when there is plenty of it. It’s just that it has to be managed properly. Municipalities and communes own municipal solid waste, but only 10 per cent of it is recycled,” he tells SciDev.Net.
“And this is a reality throughout Latin America: it is the lack of management that enables imports,” Bianco says. Imports will continue “if there is no clear legislation prohibiting the entry of waste” and “no customs to control it”.
In Chile, meanwhile, there is a paradox: Chilean organisations advocating for better waste management are more preoccupied with exports than imports of plastic waste.
The most recent report by the Zero Waste Alliance in Chile, published in June 2022, warns that from 2015-2017 to 2018-2020 exports of these materials decreased by 5 thousand tonnes.
This, says the document, “opens up preoccupying doubts about the final destination of this waste”, because if this waste did not leave the country and was not recycled either given that the recycling rate did not increase, “where did it end up? Landfills, dumps, rivers, lakes, beaches, or was it incinerated?”.
“Our hypothesis is that they are being disposed of in landfills,” Matias Roa, transport engineer and data analyst at the Alliance in Chile, tells SciDev.Net. “For now, we only have the data, but the next step in the research is to find out where the waste is. Although it does not give figures, the 2020 Interpol report reveals that Chile is one of the countries where illegal disposal of waste in landfills, as well as its incineration, increased since 2018.
Roa says that while the import of plastic waste from the US into Chile is minimal for now, it is triggering changes in its management. “It becomes fertile ground for private investment to implement new waste management systems, such as incineration or ‘waste valorisation’.”
Even in Chile, says Roa, permits have been granted for cement companies to dispose of waste, prompting new discussions about how pollutants from incineration can affect the health of communities and ecosystems near incinerators.
“These are nonsensical commercial logics, in which northern countries sell an image and a path to the future, while behind them, in their backyard, they have everything untidy, dirty and polluted.”
Although civil society organisations are making important efforts to make the importation of plastic waste from the United States to Latin America visible, their work has not had an impact on public policies and on forcing governments to respect the Plastic Waste Amendment of the Basel Convention.
“I am struck by the authorities’ ignorance of this transboundary trade, when they could be at the forefront of these international phenomena,” says Susana Morán.
“The colonialist logic is what defines quite well what we Latin American countries are living through”, says Chilean Matías Roa.
“These are senseless commercial logics, in which countries of the North sell an image and a path towards the future, while behind them, in their backyard, they have everything untidy, dirty, contaminated. And, sadly, we are part of that dirty backyard,” he adds.
For him, as for many of the people who have been monitoring these plastic waste shipments over the past three years, the solution lies at the socio-political level. “The best thing we can do is to expose these issues, educate people about them and advocate at the political level,” says Roa.
Susana Morán focuses on the essence of the problem, or rather its solution: the world is still thinking about where to take plastics, instead of thinking about how to stop consuming them.
For her, “it was a discovery to learn that there is a movement, an international trade in plastic waste, when what we should be aiming for, as societies in general, is to reduce the consumption of this type of product”. And, above all, “to demand that the companies that produce them be responsible with their environment”.
See, Latin America, the US’s new plastic dumping ground
Photo. Dozens of people separate and collect waste from the countless trucks that arrive every day in El Pueblito, in Baja California, in northwestern Mexico. Photo © Fundación GAIA Tijuana
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