The new Global Political Economy of Waste

On July 27, 2017, the Chinese government stated, via the World Trade Organization
(WTO), its intention to ban all imports of certain types of scrap, notably plastics,
textiles, and certain low-grade metals. This decision, which came from the highest
levels of the Politburo, sent immediate shockwaves through international scrap
markets. Although China had slowly been restricting this trade over the previous
few years, a ban of this extent was not expected. It is no exaggeration to say this
decision could severely harm recycling markets and municipal programs as we
know them in North America and elsewhere.
In the past 15 years, China has become the world’s largest importer of post-industrial
and post-consumer plastic scrap. According to a 2014 study it receives 56 percent
by weight of the global trade in waste plastic (Velis 2014). In 1991, the US exported
around 2500 tonnes (t) of plastic scrap to China, worth around $4 million. In 2012,
by comparison—the peak year—it exported 1.2 million tonnes (mt), worth $505
Shipping is cheap: the scrap is simply taken back in the holds of the cargo
ships that bring goods to the US from China (a process known as reverse haulage).
China’s booming industries, located near major ports and hungry for plastics they
do not yet produce at home, have willingly paid for high-quality imported scrap to
reuse in manufacturing processes. In that respect, China has become the world’s
recycler, providing a critical service to developed country municipalities. In the
US, no high-quality plastics recycling facility has been built since 2003.2
are a particularly interesting case because of their perceived low value, difficulty to
recycle, and high potential for pollution.
However, the Chinese government has long had to combat imports of contaminated,
low-quality plastic and paper scrap or contraband goods that have wound
up (deliberately or accidentally) in the bales offloaded at its ports. These contaminated
wastes often wind up in low-quality incineration facilities or reprocessed in
the small workshops and facilities that make up China’s extensive informal waste
sector. One such shop was featured in noted Chinese director Wang Jiuliang’s
recent documentary Plastic China (US release: 2016), seen widely around the
world—and apparently also by senior members of the Politburo.
Although less visible a plastic waste problem than the notorious Great Pacific
Garbage Patch, this case reveals important (and politically fraught) aspects of the
flipside of the global economy. It is one instance of relationships of dependency
between the high-consuming and the high-growth nations, and it highlights the
fragility of domestic and international recycling markets. It is also starting to reveal
the flexibility of these markets. Waste cleaning facilities sprang up in Vietnam,
Indonesia, and other south-east Asian countries in response to China’s first clampdown
on illegal waste imports (Operation Green Fence, 2013) and were on the rise
again with China’s second campaign (Operation National Sword, January 2017).
Industry leaders predict that these countries will become new recycling hubs, especially
if Western countries are slow to adapt and build the infrastructure they need
to recycle plastic and other scrap at home.
Similar stories abound across a changed global waste landscape, where wastes
have become a commodity traded from North to South, from South to North,
and among Southern countries. This chapter outlines challenges to conventional
wisdom about international production and transfer of wastes. Global environmental
politics (GEP) scholarship has yet to fully engage with this new waste landscape
and its political implications, although other fields are engaging, notably geography,
and a new, multidisciplinary field, discard studies, which brings in perspectives
from the humanities and social sciences to understand the broader roles of waste
in our society and how waste as a lens provides insight into broader social and
political trends (e.g.,; Moore 2012). By the same token, these
fields can gain from the insights GEP and other fields of global politics can provide.
In line with Dauvergne and Clapp’s (2016) call for new research agendas in global
environmental politics, this chapter draws on diverse bodies of literature, data,
and journalism to show the complexities, linkages, and cross-scalar dynamics that
characterize the “new” global political economy of wastes.
Research findings and theoretical insights to date
Economic growth and industrialization, especially in the twentieth century, transformed
the relationship between wastes and resources (Gourlay 1992; Strasser
1999). With the expansion of the global economy after World War II, people in
wealthy nations could, for the first time, experience disposable consumption on a
mass scale, generating what is now known as municipal solid wastes. Large-scale
industrial production generated its own waste, including metal, concrete, and glass.
In addition, the era was marked by massive increases in the production of chemical
wastes, many of them toxic, and many lasting hundreds of years in the environment.
Waste became a problem to be dealt with, rather than something to be collected
and reused. Landfills and waste incineration facilities expanded in size and number.
Large-scale municipal and industrial waste collection, removal, and disposal services
meant that, for most middle class and upper middle class communities, wastes
were taken “out of sight, out of mind” (Laurence and Wynne 1989). As a result, the
problem of waste followed the same pattern as other types of environmental risk,
where the costs moved away from people with socioeconomic power and towards
people with less power and money (Bullard 1991). With the rise of free trade and
economic globalization came opportunities to ship wastes, especially hazardous
wastes, overseas to poorer countries. Resistance to waste facilities helped spark
the environmental justice movement in the US, and other movements and campaigns
across Europe and the rest of the developed world. International NGOs
combated the “toxic trade”—waste dumping from rich to poor countries (Third
World Network 1989; Vallette and Spalding 1990).
The international trade in hazardous wastes sparked interest in wastes among
scholars in the global environmental politics community (Clapp 2001; O’Neill
2001). The issue came to international political attention in the 1980s, with several
egregious cases of waste dumping from Northern countries to the global South.
Many of these shipments, particularly to Africa and the Caribbean, inflicted lasting
harm and even deaths directly attributable to waste exposure. So-called “ships of
doom” plied the seas looking for ports (and willing local brokers) to offload their
cargo with no questions asked.
These cases led to the negotiation of the Basel Convention on Transboundary
Movements of Hazardous Wastes and Their Disposal, in 1989, which addressed
illegal waste dumping from Northern to Southern countries. At first, Basel merely
demanded prior informed consent from importing countries, and did not address
dangerous wastes exported to Southern countries for recycling (or “recycling”).
In response to campaigns by NGOs such as the Basel Action Network and
Greenpeace, and angry responses from African and Caribbean countries, in 1995
parties adopted a new amendment, known as the Basel Ban, which would end waste
trading, except between a subset of wealthy countries (OECD plus Liechtenstein),
for wastes destined for final disposal and for recycling. The Basel Ban, however, has
not yet been ratified by enough parties to enter into force, and is unlikely at this
point ever to do so, although the Convention Secretariat has enlisted various states
to coordinate a voluntary ban (although with some notable exceptions—such as the
2006 dumping of highly hazardous waste by oil multinational Trafigura in the Ivory
Coast; however, the major publicity given to this case indicates a normative shift).