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The Global Waste Trade

Updated: Jun 15, 2023

The global waste trade is a complex and multifaceted issue that has significant implications for both developed and developing countries. It involves the international transaction of waste for disposal and recycling purposes. The waste trade emerged in the 1970s as a solution for developed countries to manage their high waste production rates by exporting it to poorer nations.

Turkey is presently the largest importer of plastic waste, while the EU-28 countries have been the largest exporters of waste globally. In recent years, the export of waste from EU countries has increased significantly, reaching 33 million tonnes in 2021, marking a 74% increase since 2004. The main recipients of waste from EU countries include Turkey, India, Czechia, Bulgaria, and the Uzbekistan, among others. The United States, Germany, and Japan are major exporters of plastic waste, accounting for approximately 32% of global plastic waste exports from 1988 to 2020.

The global waste trade has various impacts, particularly on underdeveloped and developing countries. The export of non-recyclable or hazardous waste to these nations leads to serious pollution, resulting in severe health issues as these countries often lack the necessary infrastructure for proper waste management. Liquids present in exported waste, such as those found in vehicle engines, can contaminate soils, aquifers, and rivers. Additionally, the process of recycling plastic waste requires a significant amount of water, exacerbating water scarcity issues in some importing countries.

Regulations, such as the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal, have been implemented to address the trade of hazardous waste. However, these regulations often fall short in terms of obligations and coverage of different waste types.

The transportation of toxic waste across borders has a detrimental impact on the environment, particularly when hazardous waste is illegally transported to countries lacking proper recycling and disposal infrastructure. China's ban on imported plastic waste has also created challenges for countries that relied on China for recycling, leading to increased waste disposal in landfills and subsequent land pollution. Leaking plastic waste releases toxic chemicals into the soil ecosystem, contaminating the food chain and water sources for humans and animals.

Illegal recyclers further exacerbate the problem by importing waste illegally and resorting to burning it, which contributes to the deterioration of the ozone layer and air pollution. Communities living in proximity to such activities often suffer from health issues such as headaches, respiratory problems, and skin allergies.

Forest and environmental fires are another consequence of inadequate waste disposal monitoring by recyclers. These fires pose significant risks to ecosystems and contribute to air pollution.

To address the issues associated with the global waste trade, it is crucial to ensure the availability of proper disposal facilities for environmentally sound waste management. Additionally, investing in technologies like waste to energy can help treat waste locally, generate products, and provide energy that can support local economies.

In conclusion, the global waste trade poses significant challenges and risks to both the environment and human health. The export of waste from developed to developing countries, particularly non-recyclable or hazardous waste, has resulted in severe pollution and health issues in recipient nations. It is essential to implement more ambitious regulations and invest in sustainable waste management practices to mitigate these negative impacts. Moreover, promoting local waste treatment technologies and facilities can contribute to the development of circular economies and reduce the reliance on international waste trade. Ultimately, a comprehensive and collaborative approach is needed to address the global waste trade and work towards a more sustainable future.

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