Environmental and social activists around the world have called upon major shipping lines to prove their corporate responsibility commitments by stopping the transport of plastic scrap “from rich industrialised countries to countries that are ill-equipped to handle it in an environmentally sound manner.”
52 organizations from all over the world, including Basel Action Network (BAN), Greenpeace, GAIA, the Environmental Investigation Agency, and The Last Beach Cleanup, have written letters to the nine largest global shipping lines: Hapag-Lloyd (Germany), Maersk (Denmark), CMA CGM (France), MSC (Switzerland), Hamburg SUD (Germany), Hyundai Merchant Marine (Korea), Evergreen (Taiwan), COSCO (China), and Orient Shipping (Jordan), urging them to establish policies and implement procedures to prevent the export of shipping containers carrying plastic wastes from the rich industrialized OECD countries (developed) to non-OECD countries (developing). According to the plastic waste activist groups, such exports are highly likely to be unsorted, contaminated, and in fact illegal, which will cause much of the material to be either apprehended as criminal waste trafficking or, in large part dumped and burned in the recipient countries, damaging the health of workers or local communities.
“Exporting plastic waste to developing countries is not good for the world and is not good for the shipping business,” said Jim Puckett, Executive Director of the Basel Action Network (BAN). “These shipments are likely to be caught in the net of illegal trade, tracked by Interpol, seized by governments, incurring demurrage and return charges while tarnishing the shipping lines reputations. In sum, serving as a global pipeline for plastic pollution is not good for anyone.”
On January 1, 2021, it became illegal for 187 countries, including China, Mexico, Malaysia, India, and Indonesia that are parties to the Basel Convention, to receive a variety of mixed and contaminated plastic scrap from the United States and European Union countries. Other shipments require the consent of the importing country before they can be legally transported. However, it is feared that these new laws alone may not stop brokers from continuing to find ways to save money by exporting plastic scrap to substandard operations abroad rather than properly managing the material at source. Due to the massive number of containers and lack of inspection at exporting and importing ports, activists fear that “the unethical scrap trade” is likely to continue without the major shipping lines playing a leadership role.
BAN’s data* on OECD exports to developing countries last year paints a grim picture with over 1.7 billion tonnes being exported from the EU, US, UK and Japan alone in the first nine months of 2020. In October 2020 alone, Malaysia received 16,740 TEU shipping containers (89 million kg) of plastic scrap from around the world.* That’s the equivalent of about 558 shipping containers per day arriving to but one country. Interpol’s 2020 report on illegal plastic scrap trafficking shows that “plastic scrap trade regulations are routinely and brazenly ignored by exporters.” According to the statement, it is feared that brokers are expected to continue this trade even this year in defiance of the new rules as port enforcement is often too lax. It is therefore seen as vital that the commercial sector play a leading role to stop the unsustainable trade.
The letters asking for this level of responsibility, sent to the 9 companies on February 17, called for them to specifically:
“No longer allow shipments of plastic waste of any kind from OECD to non-OECD countries, and to the OECD Countries, Turkey, and Mexico.”
“We’re asking the shipping companies to put the health of people and the oceans above the small, short-term profits they might make from serving as a global waste dumping service. With today's campaign launch, we will begin our reporting with a scorecard showing which companies actions match their greater sustainability commitments in this regard,” said Jan Dell, Founder of plastic trade watchdog group The Last Beach Cleanup.
*Data compiled by BAN from the UN Comtrade Database show that the US, UK, EU and Japan routinely shipped plastic waste to non-OECD countries last year. The latest data available in October 2020, they have been increasing plastic waste exports to Non-OECD Countries showing their dependence on offshoring their plastic waste.