DISCARDED: Communities on the Frontlines of the Global Plastic Crisis

Villagers pick through discarded imported plastic that was dumped there by a nearby paper recycling company whose imported paper was contaminated with plastic, in Sumengko Village, near Gresik, Surabaya, Indonesia on 21st February, 2019.
Villagers pick through discarded imported plastic that was dumped there by a nearby paper recycling company whose imported paper was contaminated with plastic, in Sumengko Village, near Gresik, Surabaya, Indonesia on 21st February, 2019. Photo by Adam Dean.

When China took action to protect its borders from foreign plastic pollution by effectively shutting its doors to plastic waste imports in the beginning of 2018, it threw the global plastic recycling industry into chaos.

Wealthy countries had grown accustomed to exporting their plastic problems, with little thought or effort to ensure that the plastic they were exporting got recycled and did not harm other countries. North Americans and Europeans exported not just their plastic waste, but the pollution that went with getting rid of it.

Last year China enacted a new policy, called National Sword, for economic and environmental reasons including pollution from importing and processing plastic waste. By refusing to be the world’s dumping ground, China’s policy—and the fallout that resulted from it—revealed the true cost of rampant consumption, plastic production, and the problems and limitations of recycling as a solution to a world suffocating in its own plastic.

Plastic waste—and the environmental and health problems it causes—was diverted to other shores, stressing infrastructure and amplifying the problems of plastic pollution in lower-income countries awash in the trash of wealthy nations.

Data courtesy of Greenpeace East Asia, data visualization courtesy of Sarah Fitzgerald.
Data courtesy of Greenpeace East Asia, data visualization courtesy of Sarah Fitzgerald.

Through the stories of the people dealing with plastic imports in their communities, this report uncovers the complex human dimensions of a global trade in turmoil, from grassroots organizations rising up against plastic pollution, to the challenges that lower-income country governments face in implementing new bans patterned after China’s National Sword, the crime, threats, corruption that govern the waste trade, and the persistent economic incentives that allow for its proliferation.

The global plastic waste trade puts people and communities at risk, has long-term impacts on health and the environment, and enables the continued production of new plastics and its unchecked consumption.

It is treated as a solution to plastic waste, but in reality a scant 9 percent of the plastic the world has produced since 1950 has been recycled.1

In Thailand, one farmer living down a dirt road from a plastic waste factory had a message for Americans: “You are selfish.”

Plastic pollution had made her ill and her water undrinkable.

“Don’t push the trash out of your country. It’s your trash and you know it’s toxic,” she said. “Why do you dump your trash in Thailand?”

READ MORE STORIES IN OUR REPORT (PDF 5MB)

  1. Geyer, R., Jambeck, J. R., & Law, K. L. (2017). Production, use, and fate of all plastics ever made. Science Advances, 3(7), e1700782. https://doi.org/10.1126/sciadv.1700782