Report: Trafficking in plastic waste is on the rise and criminal groups are taking advantage

Americans like to think that they are recycling their plastic take-out food containers, cutlery, and fragile grocery bags when they toss them in those green or blue bins. But, all too often, this waste is shipped overseas, sometimes with the help of organized crime groups, where it litter cities, obstruct waterways or get burned, filling the air with toxic chemicals.

A report published Monday by the independent Swiss research group Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime, whose members include current and former law enforcement officials, sheds new light on how this waste ends up in the poorest countries who had agreed not to accept them.

Building on a precedent Interpol investigation, the new report maps the network of brokers, intermediaries, legitimate recycling companies and organized crime groups that move millions of tonnes of discarded plastic from the United States, Europe and Australia to countries in the world. ‘Southeast Asia and Africa.

Virginia Comolli, the report’s lead author, says the illicit aspect of trade is already a significant and growing problem.

“Given the existing trends in terms of plastic addiction – and looking at future projections that it is likely to increase – we are likely to see an increase in such criminal activity as well,” Comolli added.

According to the report, federal government data suggests California is particularly at fault. Plastic waste generated in the state accounted for nearly a third of all US exports to developing countries this year and is the main source of banned plastic exports to Malaysia.

Jan Dell, a chemical engineer and founder of California environmental group The Last Beach Cleanup, said part of what is behind this flood of exported plastic is that the state has very few recycling plants to her size. It is also home to the Port of Los Angeles, the main US entry point for goods from Asia. Once these shipping containers are emptied, they can be filled with California plastic waste and sent back across the Pacific Ocean at relatively low cost.

The report is based on interviews with law enforcement authorities around the world, waste regulators and industry insiders. It exposes tactics used by exporters to circumvent international efforts to curb shipments of plastic waste from richer to poorer countries, such as hiding behind multiple front companies and complex shipping routes that make it difficult for them. recipient countries to return the waste.

In 2017, China announced that it would no longer serve as a “global dumping ground” and stopped accepting shipments of plastic waste.

Two years later, more than 180 countries – not including the United States, which refused to sign the agreement – have pledged to tackle plastic pollution by adopting new control measures. They agreed that rich countries could no longer export hazardous plastic waste to developing countries. The European Union has gone further by adopting stricter rules which only allow the export of so-called clean plastic waste suitable for recycling to the poorest countries.

But tons of poor-quality, hard-to-recycle plastic waste still finds its way to developing countries, in part, Comolli found, because waste exporters are circumventing regulations.

The report found that legitimate recycling companies and waste brokers have engaged in fraud, covering up shipments of banned plastic products among other goods, illegally dumping them and paying bribes to pass the bribes. inspectors. Exporters have also mislabeled their cargo, so plastic waste appears to erroneously comply with international agreements, concealing it from customs officials.

Many companies suspected of committing crimes are not named in the report, often because they have not been formally charged with anything. But one example given of trends in waste transport is that of Biffa Waste Services, one of Britain’s largest waste management companies. He was fined 350,000 pounds in 2019, the equivalent of more than $ 470,000 today, for shipping contaminated residential waste to China that it had labeled as paper suitable for recycling.

Even the sea routes used to move plastic waste around the world are often designed to incorporate multiple stops in different countries, so by the time an illegal shipment arrives at its final destination, it is not clear where it came from. . This makes it difficult for regulators in Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines – countries that strive to return banned plastic waste – to return it to its origins.

“This is nothing more than the traditional cat-and-mouse dynamic well known to police and customs officials around the world: As law enforcement tightens its grip, criminals are looking for new ways and means. new places to carry out their activities, ”the report said. “In the case of illicit waste streams, this is likely to result in a greater proliferation of roads to places with lower enforcement capacity. “

Asian countries remain the main destination for illicit plastic waste. But the report found that Turkey and some Eastern European countries, such as Poland and Bulgaria, are also experiencing an influx.

Romanian law enforcement authorities have acknowledged that organized criminal groups are involved in the trade in banned plastics, but so have seemingly legitimate businesses. The report cites an industry expert’s account of large politically connected cement companies in Romania using shell companies to import banned plastic waste.

Turkey has become “a key node” in the trade in banned plastic waste from European countries, according to the report, due to its permissive regulatory environment, its financial interest in generating revenue by receiving foreign waste and the presence of criminal groups.

Once the waste has reached its destination, Comolli has found that pollution investigators often lack the technical knowledge or resources to trace to its source or remove layers of shell companies to reveal who is trying to bring waste in their country. Regulators in some countries have been able to form alliances to share information, but this is still relatively rare.

Although America is a major producer of plastic waste, US regulators are not leading the way in this area. Because the United States has not ratified the 2019 agreement on shipping low-quality plastic waste, American companies continue to send waste to countries like Malaysia and Indonesia, even if it is now illegal for these countries to accept them.

Without a congressional vote to sign the international agreement, the federal government has limited options to stop these exports.

The economic factors behind this trade are not new. It has long been cheaper for cities in the United States and Europe to pay exporters to ship their plastic waste elsewhere rather than sending it to a landfill or recycling facility. And once they’ve sold it to a broker, they often don’t know where it ends up.

California’s policies on waste disposal aren’t helping, Dell said. A 2011 state law intended to reduce state dependence on landfills set an objective for cities and counties to recycle 75% of their waste by 2020. But that doesn’t stop them from exporting it, Dell said.

State officials “didn’t do the math and said, ‘Is there a way to recycle this material?’ In fact, they just told the cities, “You’re going to find out,” Dell said.

Lawmakers and conservationists in California have called on the Biden administration to ratify the Basel Convention, the international agreement governing shipments of plastic waste. But until that happens, the responsibility for not shipping this waste to the poorest countries depends on voluntary commitments from cities and recycling companies.

About Jimmie T.

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