Need for effective zero waste approach

Yuyun Ismawati

The plastic waste trade refers to the export and import of plastic waste from one country to another for recycling or disposal. Many countries, especially those in the developed world, export plastic waste to developing countries for recycling. This practice is often done because it is cheaper to process waste in these countries due to lower labor costs and weak environmental regulations.

However, the plastic waste trade has also been linked to several negative environmental and social impacts. For example, much of the plastic waste imported for recycling is not recycled but instead burned in community land or dumped in landfills. These unwanted recyclates become an additional burden to the local waste challenges.

Despite these negative impacts, the plastic waste trade remains essential to the global recycling system. It allows developed countries to recycle some amount of plastic waste in other countries due to the limited recycling capacity in the global North. Trade analysts often advise government officials with financial considerations and market mechanisms in the international trade dynamics.

Traders or brokers claim that trading waste helps developed countries solve their waste recycling problems while providing a source of income and employment for people in developing countries. This practice was significantly altered in 2018 when China closed its doors for dirty mixed waste importation. Therefore, many developing countries followed suit and changed their regulations regarding the plastic waste trade to minimize its negative impacts within their borders and ensure that the waste trade is done in a sustainable and responsible manner.

The Basel Amendments are international regulations designed to address the trade in hazardous waste, including plastic, between countries. These amendments were adopted by the Parties to the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal in 2019 and came into effect on January 1, 2021.

The Basel Amendments have contributed to increased awareness and understanding of the plastic waste trade issue and the need to address it responsibly. A new treaty on plastic will set a new agreement on how countries will develop a more sustainable and circular approach to plastic in the whole life cycle.

Recently, the waste trade has been criticized by scientists and activists as a form of modern colonialism because it often takes advantage of the developing countries’ weaker regulations and poorer environmental protections. Additionally, the waste trade perpetuates economic inequalities between exporting and importing countries, as exporting nations profit from selling their waste. In contrast, the importing countries bear the costs of dealing with the pollution. These factors contribute to the perception that the waste trade is a form of exploitation of poorer countries by wealthier ones.

There is a relationship between the waste trade and the concept of zero waste. Zero waste is an approach to designing and managing products and processes to eliminate waste’s volume and toxicity while conserving and recovering all resources. One aspect of this is reducing the amount of waste generated, which can be achieved through strategies such as reducing, reusing and recycling materials.

As mentioned earlier, the waste trade refers to the movement of waste from one place to another, either within or outside one’s country. This can include exporting waste for disposal, recycling, or importing waste for treatment and/or disposal. In some cases, the waste trade may be used to minimize the amount of waste that is generated in a particular region by exporting it to another location to be reprocessed into new products or new materials.

However, new problems occur when waste is exported to countries with less stringent environmental regulations or when waste is shipped long distances rather than being managed locally.

The waste trade is not generally considered to be a zero waste approach. Zero waste eliminates waste altogether, rather than simply dumping it in another location. Zero waste strategies focus on reducing, reusing and recycling resources as much as possible in proximity and prioritize the use of closed-loop systems in which waste is minimized and resources are conserved.

In this context, the waste trade may be seen as a last resort, to be used only after all other options for reducing, reusing and recycling waste have been exhausted. The goal would be to minimize the amount of waste that is traded and ensure that it is managed in an environmentally responsible way. A meaningful zero waste implementation involves; reducing the amount of waste that is produced, increasing the rate of non-toxic recycling, and composting of organic waste.

Every country can achieve this through various measures, such as designing products for durability and recyclability, promoting reusable products, eliminating, or, banning toxic chemicals used in products, and implementing policies and programs that incentivize waste reduction and recycling.

Effective zero waste implementation requires the participation and commitment of governments, businesses and individuals. By working together, we can create a more sustainable future that minimizes the need for waste trade and maximizes the benefits of waste reduction and recycling.

The writer is a co-founder and senior advisor of Nexus3, formerly known as Bali Fokus Foundation, a non-profit organization working for a toxics-free and sustainable future. She has a broad experience in environmental health, chemicals and wastes issues. She is also a part-time social entrepreneur interested in finding a systemic change to answer environmental problems, mainly through Public-Private-People Partnerships.

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