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Hong Kong became one of the notorious destinations for illegal waste trade outside the EU

This blog is one of three in our new waste trade blog series.

Jack of all trades, waste master

Outside the window of my Hong Kong apartment at night, I saw the coastline of Kowloon highlighted by colorful containers, depicting the vitality of my hometown. Day and night, giant ships shuttle through busy container ports, unloading and transporting containers. It is a symbol of Hong Kong's prosperity, success and connection with the world.

But who knew that Hong Kong became one of the notorious destinations for illegal waste trade outside the EU?

Before 2017, there were a number of waste trade violations in Mainland China and Hong Kong. In Hong Kong, countless containers are unloaded every day, some of which may be filled with unsorted plastic, paper, cardboard and mixed municipal waste. Subsequently, the ships transported these containers to mainland China for recycling or direct disposal. Some imported wastes, especially e-wastes, are processed by informal recycling departments, and the processing process often ignores environmental health standards. Without legal consequences, people will accumulate plastic waste, burn unsorted waste in open spaces, and improperly dispose of heavy metals after extracting valuable metals. All these improper behaviors can lead to air, water and soil pollution.

The phenomenon of global waste trade is nothing new. Many countries, including EU countries, have been importing and exporting large amounts of waste. In 2016, the global trade volume of waste plastics reached 15 million tons. Although more waste is generated worldwide, efficient waste management plants (such as MRBT, recycling and composting) in many countries are underdeveloped. They have not yet discovered a cost-effective recycling and waste prevention system. Therefore, waste has been exported to other countries as a cheaper alternative. Before 2017, Hong Kong was the largest re-export hub for waste plastics. Is it a victim of environmental damage or an accomplice

Unstoppable domino effect

The informal waste sector is ubiquitous not only in China but also in several East Asian countries. Effective in January 2018, China's plastic import ban first moved plastic waste to East and Southeast Asian countries, especially Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam. The following waste import restrictions in these countries subsequently led to an increase in waste imports from Taiwan, South Korea, Turkey and India. One of many tragedies is the illegal dumping and burning of plastic waste in Kedah, Malaysia. As toxic smoke rises and spreads in the sky, many residents of the area are said to suffer from respiratory diseases due to organic pollutants discharged from plastic waste. The company found loopholes in the environmental regulations and border controls of these Asian countries, not to mention that their practice of disguising hazardous waste as classified recyclable waste made illegal waste trade even more problematic [1]. When waste is collected from different countries, it creates a special "ecosystem".

No time to waste

Travel restrictions are essential to protect the country during a pandemic. Believe it or not: the "global travel restrictions" for junk will also be revised. From January 1, 2021, the Basel Convention Plastic Waste Amendment will come into effect, restricting cross-border unsorted plastic waste trade. These plastics are subject to the prior informed consent process, which means that in theory, a country will not receive unwanted plastic waste from the exporting country. All states that accept the amendment must ensure environmentally sound management of unsorted plastic waste, minimize waste generation, and take other measures to promote transparent and legal cross-border waste trade. Although the waste trade mechanism is legally binding on the country, we need more measures to combat illegal waste trade.

We cannot only allow passengers to board without a ticket or passport. Similarly, countries need to properly monitor their borders and waste flows. The first step is to obtain enough data. There is little public transparency about where waste and recyclables in Europe ultimately go. Therefore, stakeholders involved in the waste trade are subject to less potential public pressure to strictly enforce or comply with EU waste transportation regulations. The EU and its member states should develop a waste management system with a high degree of public traceability so that the public knows that their recyclables and waste are properly treated. The second step is to coordinate freight registration procedures and mechanisms. Since stakeholders have different interpretations of "waste" and member states have different registration methods for shipping carriers, the system should be more consistent. A unified system will help track the source of waste and classify materials.

After understanding the waste stream, the final step is to convert the waste into resources locally. By improving waste prevention and reuse strategies, separate collection and recycling quality, member states will produce recyclable raw materials for their economies, or no waste in the first place. At the same time, the EU should continue to eliminate materials that are not easily recycled in its member states to avoid landfills and incineration. For example, the Dutch government announced a ban on the sale of single-use plastics from July 2021. This step will prompt the company to redesign its products.

The emergence of waste trade ultimately comes down to the generation of waste. Now is the time to reconsider the ways we can reduce waste generation. In the European Union, packaging waste accounts for nearly 40% of plastic production. Examples show that unpackaged stores are booming, and they need more policy support. We hope that the EU's ban on certain single-use plastics will accelerate this transition. In addition, the digital age will introduce more electronic devices. Not to mention everyday necessities such as laptops and mobile phones, electronic products are embedded in many products, whether they are useful or not. It prompts us responsible consumers to think about four pressing questions about the product:

How recyclable are the materials used? How easy is it to disassemble or repair? Is it durable enough? How necessary is it?

See you on the other side?We live in a strange global waste trading system that we do not fully understand but still rely heavily on. We have been paying attention to the surface of global trade, and there is almost no information about illegal waste trade. Focusing on green growth and circular economy, the EU's forthcoming strategy and action plan are expected to reduce the burden of waste in some non-EU countries and develop the recycling industry in member states. At the same time, we must pay attention to the implementation of the waste amendment. Last but not least, we should rethink how to prevent waste in our daily lives. Not sure what you can do? You can check out our 9 zero waste locking techniques!

Whenever I throw out trash and recyclables outside my apartment in the Netherlands (I am still climbing the zero trash level), I hope that fate will not let us meet again on the coast of Hong Kong or anywhere in the world.


[1] Parajuly, K., & Fitzpatrick, C. (2020). Understand the impact of cross-border waste transportation policies: take plastic and e-waste as examples. Sustainability, 12(6), 2412.

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