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close this bookOutreach N° 94 - Waste - Part 4: What to do about Hazardous Waste (OUTREACH - UNEP - WWF, 34 p.)
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentOUTREACH information packs
View the documentAcknowledgements
View the documentLocation map
View the documentHow to use OUTREACH packs
View the documentHow to use this OUTREACH pack
View the documentQuestions and answers: Hazardous waste
View the documentClass activity: Bike and bike products
View the documentNews brief: European waste wraps Pakistani sweets
View the documentNews brief: Indonesia's scavengers seek ban on waste imports
View the documentActivity: Hazardous waste on the Mexico-US border
View the documentArticle: Plastics: trashing the Third World
View the documentPuzzle: A junk trap!
View the documentArticle: Deadly litter chokes livestock
View the documentFiction: Adventures of Ranger Rick: Rick and the gang learn about a trashy problem
View the documentArticle and class/group activities: The Basel Convention
View the documentArticle: Keeping tabs on toxics
View the documentChart: Household products: potential hazards
View the documentActivities: What to do with hazardous waste
View the documentPuzzle: Odd one out
View the documentActivities: Use safer alternatives to house and garden ''toxics''
View the documentArticle: Mobilising against toxic waste
View the documentArticle: Oil spill!
View the documentClass/group activities: Cleaning up oil spills

Article: Plastics: trashing the Third World

by Anne Leonard

Anne Leonard is a waste trade campaigner with Greenpeace.


Multinational Monitor, June 1992.
If reproduced, please give credit to original source.


Teachers: As background information for classroom discussion on international movement of waste.
NGOs: As background material for campaigns on waste dumping.
Journalists, Radio broadcasters: As a source of information for articles/programmes on international movement of waste.

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 plum-meted so far and so fast, in fact, that we are approaching a 'point 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 me 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 Exports from the U.S. to Asia

January Through May 1992













Kong India
























Sri Lanka












(Source: Port Import/Export Research Service Records, January-May 1992.)

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 me 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 “dumping” 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.

Answer to Puzzle: A Junk Trap! (shown on the next page): A mouse. The animal probably crawled into the old bottle looking for food, or just out of curiosity. When an animal falls to the bottom of a glass bottle, it often cant climb up the slippery sides. So it is likely to end up starving to death.

Can you think of other trash that might harm wildlife?