Plastics: Trashing the Third World

by Anne Leonard

JAKARTA, INDONESIA - In the 90 degree heat, women stand over huge piles of plastic garbage. It is too hot to wear a protective smock - not that one is available anyway. They use the same bare hands to wipe the sweat from their brows that they use to sort the thousands and thousands of old plastic bags.

 Even though the women are working in a crowded slum outside Indonesia's largest city, much of the writing on the plastic garbage is in English. The women sort through liquid soap bottles, food wrappers, disposable diaper packages and huge bags with familiar logos - Dow, Du Pont, Monsanto, Solvay, BASF Mobil. A white powder blows out of some of these bags as the women pull them from the pile. The women sorting the bags cannot read English, so they do not know that the white powder is titanium dioxide, which causes respiratory damage. They do know, however, that when the Indonesian plastics recycling companies they work for began importing plastic waste from the United States, they developed skin rashes they never had when they only processed locally produced plastic waste.

 The health risks faced by the Indonesian women - and thousands like them throughout Asia and elsewhere in the Third World - are a direct result of the upsurge in plastic use in the United States - and of industry efforts to quell public concern in the United States about the environmental effects of increased plastics use.

Plastic's new image - biodegradable and recyclable

 In 1989, U.S. corporations used more than 12 billion pounds of plastic for packaging designed to be thrown away as soon as the package is opened. In the 1990s, this figure is expected to double.

 It was not until recently, when people began to realize that landfilling plastic preserves it forever and burning it releases some of the most toxic substances known to science, that the U.S. public started to question the country's growing dependence on plastics. Rather than address these serious environmental problems, the plastics industry focused its attention on addressing its public image.

 A confidential December 22, 1989 letter from Larry Thomas, president of The Society of the Plastics Industry, invited plastics manufacturers to help develop a $150 million public relations campaign. "The image of plastics among consumers is deteriorating at an alarmingly fast pace. Opinion research experts tell us that it has plummeted so far and so fast, in fact, that we are approaching a ępoint of no return,'" Thomas wrote. "Public opinion polls during the 1980s show that an increasing percentage of the general public believes plastics are harmful to health and the environment. That percentage rose sharply from 56 percent in 1988 to 72 percent in 1989. At this point we will soon reach a point from which it will be impossible to recover our credibility. (Witness what has happened to the nuclear energy industry.)"

 The plastics industry developed a two-point plan to restore its image. First, by mixing small amounts of corn starch into plastic products, the industry claimed its plastic packaging, garbage bags and diapers were "biodegradable." It did not take long for the U.S. public to figure out that although corn biodegrades, plastic does not [see The Biodegradable Myth," Multinational Monitor, March 1990 ].

 Next, the industry jumped aboard the recycling bandwagon. Instead of "biodegradable," nearly every plastic package on the supermarket shelf is now stamped "recyclable."

"If we can get our act together and show the world just how recyclable these valuable polymers are and that the industry stands behind the commitment to prove it, then the mathematics will change," explained Marty Forman, chair of the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries' plastic committee last June. "It won't be a 60-billion-pound market shrinking to 45 because 15 billion pounds were recycled, it will be an 80 or 90 or 100 billion pound market which has expanded because those plastics are recycled."

 Unfortunately, the plastics companies' claims that their plastic is "recyclable" are badly misleading. Plastic waste is seldom if ever recycled into the same product, so recycling used plastic does not make a dent in the amount of plastic needed to make the original products. Additionally, each time plastic is heated, its chemical composition changes and its quality decreases, so the number of times it can be recycled is very limited. The most dishonest aspect of plastic recycling claims, however, may be that many of the plastic bags and bottles dropped off at local recycling centers in the United States are shipped to Indonesia and other Third World countries, where much of it is not recycled at all.

Plastic waste exports

 The plastics industry is now adopting the tried-and-true practices of international waste traders worldwide. By exporting their wastes to less-industrialized countries, U.S. plastics corporations have learned, they can avoid domestic regulations and community opposition to waste-handling facilities, and pay their workers wages far below U.S. levels.

It is increasingly likely that the plastic bags and bottles dropped off at a local recycling center in the United States will end up in the countryside in China or in an illegal waste importer's shop in Manila.

 Last year alone, over 200 million pounds of plastic waste were exported from the United States, according to data from Port Import/Export Research Service. This waste was sent to Argentina, Brazil, Chile, China, the Dominican Republic, Ghana, Ecuador, Guatemala, Hong Kong, Hungary, India, Indonesia, Israel, Jamaica, South Korea, Malaysia, Morocco, Nigeria, Pakistan, the Philippines, Russia, Singapore, South Africa, Taiwan, Tanzania, Thailand, and Trinidad and Tobago.

 The primary target of U.S. plastic waste exporters is Asia. In 1991, more than 15 million pounds of plastic waste were shipped to the Philippines, 35 million pounds to Indonesia and over 75 million pounds to Hong Kong (much of which was sent on to China).

 Industry recycling coalitions tout exports for diverting waste from diminishing U.S. landfill capacity while providing much needed employment in less-industrialized countries. In a September 1991 issue of Plastics News, Gretchen Brewer, a consultant with Earth Circle in La Jolla, California, justified plastic waste exports to Asia because "they have an urgent need to employ a lot of people, and it also helps them get more raw materials."

 The U.S. Chamber of Commerce also denies that there are any problems with plastic waste exports. Harvey Alter, manager of the Chamber's Resources Policy Department, testified last fall in a Congressional hearing on the subject. "There is no basis," he assured lawmakers, "for accusations that the United States is ędumping' hazardous (or other waste) on unsuspecting developing countries. Materials for recycling, virtually by definition, are sold to enterprises in countries with sophisticated manufacturing facilities."

 Since there are no federal oversight mechanisms or standards for plastic waste exports, no one really knows what happens to the millions of pounds exported annually. Harrie Cohen, chief executive officer of Ontario Plastics Recycling in California, admits that he sends all of the plastic collected by his firm to China. "I don't know exactly what they're doing with it," he told a Plastics News reporter last year. Apparently, the U.S. "cradle to grave" approach to waste management, which requires tracking and monitoring at all stages from waste production to transport to disposal, does not apply if the grave is in another country.

 A Greenpeace investigation of "recycling" facilities in Asia reveals that plastic waste is being shipped to countries which ban waste imports, that recycling facilities are endangering workers and the surrounding environment and that much of the plastic sent to be recycled is simply dumped in landfills or in random locations.


U.S. plastics "recyclers" sent over 35 million pounds of plastic waste to Indonesia last year. The majority of the waste was sent to two cities on the island of Java - Jakarta and Surabaya.

 Once the waste arrives in Indonesia, it undergoes labor-intensive sorting by hand. First, workers separate for disposal the non-plastic wastes - newspapers, clothing scraps, metal scraps and miscellaneous other trash - that are imported along with the plastic cargo. Plastics that are either too contaminated or of such poor quality that recycling is not feasible are added to the discard pile. The owner of one Indonesian plastics recycling company estimates that up to 40 percent of the imported waste is directly landfilled at a local dump.

 A large grinding machine transforms the separated plastic destined for recycling into flakes or pellets. Workers rinse these pellets with water to remove the residues and contaminants from the waste. This water, after rinsing many loads, is dumped onto the dirt floor or out the back door of the recycling plant.

 The pellets, sometimes mixed with new plastic or other additives, are melted and forced through an extruder which shapes the hot plastic into long cords. These cords, once cooled, are chipped again and sent to manufacturing plants in Asia to be made into shoe soles, containers or toys.

The plastic processing all happens indoors, in hot, crowded rooms with no ventilation systems. Recycling facilities in the United States, in contrast, are equipped with vacuum vents over the plastic melting machines to immediately remove fumes from the workers' environment.

Hong Kong and China

Hong Kong is the largest single importer of U.S. plastic waste. In 1991, it received more than half of all U.S. plastics waste exports.

 The recycling facilities in Hong Kong look much the same as those in Indonesia. The same plastic grinding, melting and re-shaping machines are in use, releasing the same strong noxious fumes. As in Indonesia, the untreated rinse water is discharged down drains or out the window. One difference is that, in real-estate scarce Hong Kong, the recycling shops are located on the fourth, eighth or eleventh floors of run-down industrial skyscrapers. The piles of plastics and the heat from the melting machines pose an obvious and frightening fire hazard in these densely packed buildings.

 Of the 10 plastic recycling facilities Greenpeace investigated, the sophisticated equipment described by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's Alter was nowhere to be seen. In fact, Hong Kong is only now in the beginning stages of negotiations for the first chemical waste treatment facility in the entire territory.

 A number of plastic waste importers in Hong Kong simply warehouse waste en route to China. Many of these importers once processed the waste in Hong Kong but have since found land and labor costs much lower in the mainland.

 A visit to a plastics recycling company in China revealed more of the same basic processes, but a different setting. Instead of the crowded slums of Jakarta or the industrial skyscrapers of Hong Kong, the facility was located on a dirt road in the countryside in Guangzhou. Since the area was suffering an electricity black-out the day of the investigation, none of the machinery was in operation.

 The plastic waste is sorted in a walled-in courtyard which is also the site for worker housing. On one side of the courtyard, men pile huge cardboard boxes of plastic scrap. The boxes bear many of the same names as the plastic bags exported to Indonesia: Dow, Monsanto, General Electric, Du Pont. On the other side of the courtyard, less than 10 feet from the piles of plastic garbage, children play and women hang laundry to dry.

 A massive pile of discards - unrecyclable plastics, clothing, scraps, and other garbage - occupy the center of the courtyard. The facility manager explains that there is no central dump in which this material can be disposed, so it is dumped in random locations in the countryside.

Last August, six containers exported from New York Harbor and supposedly carrying plastic waste arrived in Shanghai, China. When the Chinese plastic waste importers opened the containers, they discovered a grisly concoction of U.S. waste. Eight months later, the Shanghai City Environmental Protection Bureau sampled the containers and reported: "55 percent are ... mostly household garbage, blood transfusion bags, and tubes. In order to prevent pollution, you must immediately request a professional unit to thoroughly sterilize the waste plastic and household garbage."

The Philippines

 Although the Philippines has a strict law banning waste imports, U.S. corporations and waste brokers shipped over 15 million pounds of plastic waste to the country in 1991. As is the case in many waste-importing countries, underfunded customs and environmental agencies are unable to detect and intercept incoming waste shipments. And since the shipments are arranged covertly, the locations of the importing companies are unknown.

 But the situation is not hopeless. Activists in the Philippines, working in conjunction with their counterparts in the United States, have begun to take steps to stop illegal plastic exports to the Philippines.

 Environmental and development organizations in the Philippines and the United States have formed a coalition to stop the illegal waste imports into the Philippines. Rene Salazar, director of the Southeast Asia Regional Institute for Community Education (SEARICE), a Philippine development organization and member of the new Coalition Against Toxic Waste, is demanding that his government take a more active role on this issue. "The toxic waste trade is a fast-growing industry as North Americans and Europeans do not wish to destroy their own backyards," he explains. "Mafia-like export companies are enticing Third World countries with potential profits to be made from trade in toxics. We have a complete list of all the imports of waste into the Philippines in 1991. We challenge the Philippine government to tell us where it went."

Using data from the U.S. Department of Customs, the new Coalition has begun tracking ships known to have carried the waste from the United States in the past. On April 1, 1992, activists from the United States and the Philippines boarded two waste- trading ships in New York Harbor: the Evergreen line's Ever Guest, which carried plastic waste to Indonesia, Hong Kong/China, and the Philippines last year, and the Mitsui OSK line's Alligator Liberty, which also carried plastic waste to Hong Kong/China.

Wearing "Hazardous Exports Prevention Patrol" uniforms, the activists met with the captains of both ships and requested that they refuse to participate in the international waste trade. Maximo Kalaw, Jr., president of GreenForum Philippines, explained to the captains that, although the United States allows waste exports, unloading the waste in the Philippines is illegal.

 After the captains refused to cease carrying waste from the United States to the Philippines or elsewhere in Asia, the Hazardous Exports Prevention Patrol hung a large banner on the Ever Guest's hull which announced, "Hazardous Exports to Asia Begin Here." Philippine members of the Coalition Against Toxic Waste are planning to greet the ships when they arrive in Asia.

 Hopefully, the efforts of the Coalition will work to prevent waste traders from conducting "business as usual," says Nicanor Perlas, president of the Philippine Center for Alternative Development Initiatives (CADI) and a member of the Coalition. "We want to send a strong message to these irresponsible companies that the world has changed," Perlas says. "Citizens all over the world are informing each other and collaborating on ways to cut down the anti-social and environmentally destructive behavior of corporations."



Waste Trade Regulations in the Making

CURRENT U.S. WASTE EXPORT REGULATIONS require importing countries to consent to the imports before they are sent - but they only apply to wastes legally classified as "hazardous" under U.S. law. Any person or company may load a barge with plastic or metal scrap, municipal garbage, sewage sludge or incinerator ash and send it to any country without notifying either the U.S. or the importing country's government.

 The U.S. Congress is currently in the process of overhauling the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), the nation's major waste law. Title V of the new RCRA will deal with international waste trade.

 A number of bills have been introduced this year to amend the waste export section of RCRA. Proposals range from a complete ban on the international waste trade, introduced by Representative Ed Towns, D-New York, to a virtual free-trade-in-waste bill supported by the Bush Administration.

 The industry coalitions and front groups that promote plastics recycling to the public are also busy promoting waste exports for "recycling" on Capitol Hill. So far, they have been successful in obtaining a complete exemption for plastic waste exports in each proposed bill, except Towns's Waste Export and Import Prohibition Act.

 - A.L.



Two Months' Plastic Garbage Exports

Plastic Scrap Exports to Asia,

 February 1-March 31, 1992

Country Number of Shipments Total (lbs)


Calculated from Port Import/Export Research Service data.