New colonialism? Greenpeace accuses developed nations of exploiting inequality with plastic waste exports
01 Aug 2022 --- Greenpeace has accused global North nations of “colonialism” for exporting toxic and hazardous waste pollutants to global South nations unable to sustainably manage the imported waste.
The report suggests that the UK, for example, exports over half of the plastic waste that it counts as “recycled” in the knowledge that these materials are often dumped or burnt, causing great harm to the natural environment and local populations.
PackagingInsights speaks to Dr. Sedat Gundoğdu, plastic waste researcher at Cukurova University, Turkey, about the accusations against global North waste exporters. Gundoğdu is part of the Microplastic Research Group, a team of scientists studying pollution and waste crime in Turkey, a country struggling with the illegal incineration of imported plastic waste.
“Countries like the UK export their plastic waste to other countries with ‘recycling motivation.’ Those exporting countries have very sophisticated sorting systems and waste management infrastructure,” he explains.
“However, when it comes to the final solution, they prefer to incinerate or send them to other countries, which don’t have a proper waste management system and have inefficient environmental laws: this is a new kind of colonialism.”
Unequal power relations
The Greenpeace and Runnymede Trust report investigates the relationship between environmental injustice and what Gundoğdu refers to as “new colonialism.” In the report, “waste pollution and the legacy of environmental racism” has its own chapter.
Greenpeace says the dumping of toxic or hazardous waste pollutants is concentrated in “sacrifice zones,” occupied predominantly by low-income people of color across the globe. Communities impacted in the “global South” have fewer political and economic solutions to form an effective opposition to potentially hazardous waste sites and practices.
In the report, the terms “global North” and “global South” are intended not as geographical classifications but to refer to unequal global power relations. The NGO uses the terms to address political, cultural and economic inequalities between regions.
“If a country violates the healthy environment rights of another country’s citizens, then this is a total exploitation of the environment. Moreover, if plastic is not recyclable and has to be incinerated or landfilled in the original country, then it is not recyclable in other countries too and has to be burned or dumped,” stresses Gundoğdu.
“This is definitely what’s happening in Turkey right now. Turkey cannot even manage its own waste and it imports more to feed a ‘mushroomed industry.’ This practice is damaging waste management infrastructure and environmental health.”
Nature knows no bounds
However, Gundoğdu also points out that “new colonialism” through toxic waste exports also harms global North nations in the longer term because all countries rely on planetary health.
“Countries have borders, but nature does not. They [the governments] should know that the boomerang effect will carry those exported problems to the source country,” he says.
“For instance, Turkey is one of the food suppliers of the EU and the UK. If you pollute the food supplier’s water, soil and air, then this will not mean that the only affected community will be limited to importers as exporters will also be affected by this pollution.”
“On the other hand, open burning and dumping is not the only way of discarding imported plastics. We also have another problem – facility fires. Almost one facility gets burnt in three days in Turkey. Burning in the open air or in the storage of a facility is the main way of processing imported plastic waste in Turkey,” he adds.
Every year, it is estimated that between 400,000 and one million people die in the global South because of diseases related to waste and plastic pollution, equating to up to one person every 30 seconds.
Plastic waste contains many toxic substances, such as flame retardants, plasticizers and stabilizers. When incinerated or burnt, this waste can harm human health by creating respiratory ailments and increasing the risk of heart disease and cancer.
These build-ups of dangerous waste are being created in part by the exportation of waste from the global North. The UK is the world’s second largest producer of plastic waste per capita. Greenpeace’s analysis of UK government trade data found that it exported 688,000 metric tons of plastic waste to other countries in 2020.
The report states that almost 40% of this waste, amounting to 210,000 metric tons in 2020, ended up in Turkey.
However, opinions about the UK’s plastic recycling performance remain divided, with the British Plastics Federation identifying “clear progress” toward circularity but Greenpeace warning that recycling efforts are failing and must now focus on plastic reduction.
Nonetheless, the lack of waste management infrastructure has resulted in widespread plastic leakage into the Mediterranean Sea.
The microplastics produced by this plastic waste are mixing with groundwater, air and soil. The health problems this causes compound the existing health issues many in these already impoverished areas face, leaving them “unable to cope,” says Umut Özşimşek, an activist in Turkey campaigning against the plastic waste trade as part of a youth-led movement called Children of Nature.
By Natalie Schwertheim
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