Why Southeast Asia is drowning in imported plastic waste

Why Southeast Asia is drowning in imported plastic wasteWhy Southeast Asia is drowning in imported plastic waste
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Southeast Asia faces a severe environmental crisis as imported plastic waste accumulates across its beaches and towns, disrupting local ecosystems and communities.
Key points:
  • Southeast Asia, already the world’s largest contributor to oceanic plastic, receives even more waste from developed regions.
  • The problem lies in international waste management regulations, compounded by regional corruption and lax enforcement.
  • Despite challenges, some communities and governments are mobilizing with grassroots clean-up efforts and legislative actions, such as potential bans on such imports.
How bad it is: Southeast Asian countries received 17% of the world’s plastic waste imports between 2017 and 2021, according to the United Nations. The region, however, has only about 9% of the world’s population.
  • China, once the world’s largest importer of plastic waste, banned the practice with most plastics and other recyclable materials in 2018, drastically altering the global waste trade dynamics. This policy shift redirected much of the world’s plastic to Southeast Asia.
  • The Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, Myanmar, Vietnam and Thailand were also among the world’s top 10 contributors to oceanic plastic pollution in 2021, accounting for more than half the global total.
What this means: The escalating amount of plastic waste not only mars the region’s natural beauty — it also poses significant health and environmental risks. As it affects marine life, the debris also endangers local economies, particularly fishing and tourism.
Who’s causing it: Developed jurisdictions such as the U.S., Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong and the European Union all export plastic waste to the region. However, other ASEAN countries — notably Thailand and Singapore — also do.
  • Despite the Basel Convention, which is meant to regulate the international movement of hazardous wastes, enforcement is lax, and corruption allows illegal shipments to slip through. This practice is known as “waste colonialism,” where richer countries shift their environmental burden onto poorer regions.
  • The U.S. is not a party to the convention, allowing it to export its wastes with fewer restrictions.
  • Walmart is one entity implicated in the problem, with tracking devices revealing that waste intended for recycling occasionally ends up in unauthorized Southeast Asian facilities, reported ABC News. While the company acknowledges imperfections in its recycling program, it asserts that the majority of materials collected are processed as intended and that it is committed to enhancing its waste management practices.
Where the trash goes: Certain areas appear to have been hit the hardest.
  • In Labuan, Indonesia, residents witness daily influxes of plastic on beaches that were once pristine, as per Nikkei Asia.
  • In Malaysia, towns such as Jenjarom see agricultural communities transform into zones crowded with recycling factories that allegedly emit toxic fumes and dump waste irresponsibly.
How residents are dealing with it: Community members often undertake cleanup efforts themselves.
  • In Labuan, fishermen regularly clear plastic debris from their boat propellers before heading out to sea. In Jenjarom, some have begun reporting illegal recycling despite facing personal risks, including death threats.
What governments are doing: Some regional governments have started to act, though enforcement remains a challenge due to limited resources and systemic corruption. Thailand and Vietnam, for instance, have announced plans to ban plastic waste imports by 2025.
The big picture: The Southeast Asian problem reflects broader global challenges in waste management and environmental justice. Plastics are often not recycled due to technical difficulties, economic infeasibility or simply being contaminated, leading to their accumulation in landfills or the environment.
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