Is India Becoming America’s Trash Bin for Illegal Plastic Waste?

As China bans the import of recyclable waste from developed nations, thousands of tons of scrap material is now being dumped in other Asian countries, including India.

After handling nearly half of the world’s recyclable waste, mostly from the United States and other developed nations, for over two and a half decades, China banned the import of containers carrying scrap paper, plastics and metals for recycling and reuse early last year. So where is the waste ending up now?

Other Asian countries are being “hit really hard” by the inflow of plastic scrap, Jim Puckett, Executive Director of Basel Action Network (BAN), a U.S.-based organisation focussed on issues of environmental justice and economic inefficiency in toxic trade, told StoriesAsia.

Bearing the brunt of spikes in plastic trash import was Indonesia, which, about four months ago, promised that illegal plastic waste imports - waste contaminated with plastic and other hazardous material - would be sent back to the countries in which they originated.

However, according to a recent investigation conducted by Nexus3, an Indonesian NGO that works towards a just, toxic-free, and sustainable future and BAN, the waste that the Southeast Asian archipelago promised to send back was illegally diverted to countries like India, Thailand, South Korea and Vietnam.

In the present case, the waste was categorised as paper scrap when, in reality, it comprised of plastic and other hazardous materials and was shipped from the U.S. to Indonesia. According to international norms and the Basel Convention, Puckett  explained, “illegal waste exports are the responsibility of the state of export which is required to reimport the waste.”

The Basel Convention is an international treaty that seeks to reduce the movement of hazardous waste among nations, specifically from developed to less-developed nations.

While the U.S. is not a party to the Basel Convention, it is still required to comply with international norms, Puckett clarified.

“We accessed the identification numbers of 70 containers, of which 58 originated in the U.S. and we tracked them,” Puckett said. “We found that the 58 were diverted to other countries. This is against both international norms and what they [Indonesian authorities] had promised.”

Of the 58 containers that were meant to be returned to the U.S., it was found that 38 were diverted to India, three to South Korea, and one container each to Thailand, Vietnam, Mexico, the Netherlands, and Canada.

In India, 25 containers arrived at Mundra Port in Gujarat on September 6, 2019 and 13 containers arrived at Jawaharlal Nehru Port in Maharashtra on September 14, 2019. 

Yuyun Ismawati of Nexus3 said that the Indonesian Customs Authority and the Ministry of Environment claimed that the paperwork stated that the containers were ordered to go to the U.S. [and not other countries like India]. “However, they did not produce any evidence about this,” she added.

“What often happens with this type of shipment is that the plastic will ultimately be dumped and not recycled,” Puckett said, noting that wrongful categorisation of the waste as paper scrap would result in the contents of the shipments being sent to paper recycling centres where plastics would likely be separated and then burnt resulting in the release of toxic gases like dioxins and furans, which are harmful to both the environment and human health.

Dharmesh Shah of the Global Alliance for Incineration Alternatives (GAIA) explained that the Basel Convention carries clear guidelines on what can be exported as recyclables. 

GAIA is a global network of more than 800 grassroots groups, NGOs and individuals to help create a zero waste world.

However, “making waste recyclable is a labour-intensive process and it begins at the household level,” Shah said. Contamination occurs in the entire process beginning with the household and ultimately, Shah explained, when such kind of waste gets shipped illegally it ends up in local landfills in countries like India, Bangladesh and Pakistan which become the next destinations after countries like Indonesia and Thailand start blocking waste shipments.

Speaking about how the diversion of containers dampens hopes for accountability and justice, Puckett said that if the containers had been sent back to the perpetrator, this would have facilitated the person’s prosecution by the U.S., but instead, “the containers were diverted to countries like India which might not even be aware that the waste is contaminated [contains plastic].”

Both India and Indonesia are parties to the Basel Convention, which demands a respect of laws framed at the respective national levels about trade in waste.

Currently, there is a ban in India on the import of mixed waste - waste comprising of plastics and other hazardous materials like the one in question. “Now that we have blown the whistle on this, we hope that India will direct an inquiry and seek answers from Indonesian authorities about how this was done and why Indonesia was flouting the ban on plastic import [in India],” Puckett said.

Queries sent by StoriesAsia to India’s Central Pollution Control Board, Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change and officials at Mundra Port and Jawaharlal Nehru Port have remained unanswered.

The other question that remains is whether Indonesian authorities warned the recipient countries that the waste was contaminated with plastic.

“It is impossible to believe that the Indonesian government does not bear any responsibility,” Puckett said, adding that “either they were negligent in determining if the reexport was done as was directed by the government or they were actually a part of the decision to divert the waste.”

The biggest issue though pertains to flaws in waste management in the U.S. - a country that produces the highest amount of waste per capita.“There is something fundamentally wrong when advanced nations like the U.S. are failing to deal with their own waste,” Shah said. “They need to do a serious assessment of their waste management capabilities and stop treating Asia as a trash bin.”

What responsibilities is the U.S., as the exporter, willing to take in this particular instance? The U.S. Department of State didn’t respond to the question.

By Rishika Pardikar

Producer: Vivek Singh
Graphics: Richard Khuptong

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