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Watchdog challenges shipping lines to curb illegal waste exports

A total of 52 organisations from all over the world have called upon major shipping lines to prove their corporate responsibility commitments by no longer transporting plastic waste from industrialised countries to developing countries that are ‘ill-equipped to handle it in an environmentally sound manner’.

Parties including the Basel Action Network (BAN) and Greenpeace 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 improve their plastic scrap export policies. The main complaint is that such exports are highly likely to be unsorted, contaminated, and illegal.

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 wastes 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 wastes to substandard operations abroad rather than properly managing the waste at source. Due to the ‘massive’ number of containers and lack of inspection at exporting and importing ports, activist fear that the unethical waste trade is likely to continue unless major shipping lines take on a leadership role.

Regulations routinely ignored

According to BAN’s data on OECD exports to developing countries last year paints a ‘frightening 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 waste from around the world. That’s the equivalent of about 558 shipping containers per day arriving to but one country.

Besides, Interpol’s 2020 report on illegal plastic waste trafficking shows that plastic waste trade regulations are ‘routinely and brazenly ignored’ by exporters. 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 illegal or unsustainable trade.

‘Not good for anyone’

‘Exporting plastic waste to developing countries is not good for the world and is not good for the shipping business,’ says 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.’

‘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,’ says Jan Dell, founder of plastic trade watchdog group The Last Beach Cleanup.

Want to learn more about waste exports? Check out this recent webinar by the Basel Action Network.

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