In 2019, at a meeting in Geneva, Switzerland, delegates from 187 countries approved the first-ever global rules on cross-border shipments of plastic waste. No longer could countries export contaminated, mixed, or unrecyclable plastics without the recipient country’s informed consent. It was a landmark step aimed at reducing the flood of wealthy nations’ scrap that had been deluging poorer regions, particularly Southeast Asia, since China closed its doors to such imports the previous year.
Hopes were high that the agreement — enacted as a set of amendments to the Basel Convention, which sets rules for developed nations sending hazardous waste to less-developed ones — would help control abuses in the trade of discarded plastic, which was often ending up strewn in fields, clogging rivers, or burned in open heaps. In the two and a half years since the amendments came into force in 2021, though, the reality has largely failed to live up to that ambition.
But some countries on the receiving end of the developed world’s waste exports are acting on their own. Indonesia, like its neighbors Thailand and Malaysia, was hit by a tidal wave of foreign trash after China — long the top destination for rich nations’ discarded plastic — stopped accepting it, and exporters in North America, Europe, Australia, Japan, and South Korea scrambled to dispose of mountains of waste that quickly accumulated.
Pressured by outrage at home and abroad over images of that plastic piled in villages and swirling through waterways, Indonesia cracked down on dirty, unsorted imports, tightening its regulations and stepping up enforcement. But its experience offers a mixed picture of halting progress and continued challenges, vividly illustrating the complexities of trying to stem a global tide of plastic waste that grows larger every year.
The plastic that has long been shipped around the world is ostensibly intended for recycling. To be sure, some of that material is ultimately converted into new goods. But it became apparent after China’s closure that much of what was being stuffed into shipping containers in the United States, Europe, and the rest of the developed world was badly contaminated with trash, such as used diapers, or contained high percentages of unrecyclable types of plastic.
Today, Indonesia allows only well-sorted scrap imports and bars batches whose impurities — any material other than the main one being shipped — exceed 2 percent of the total volume. Every container headed its way must be inspected before shipping. Exporters have to register with the Indonesian embassy in their country, an effort to introduce transparency into a trade rife with fly-by-night operators whose frequent name changes have long made it hard to know who was responsible for contaminated shipments, said Yuyun Ismawati, co-founder of the Nexus3 Foundation, a Jakarta-based research and advocacy group.
Environmentalists and experts agree that this toughened stance has succeeded in significantly reducing the volume of tainted waste arriving in Indonesia. Many fields covered with foreign plastic a few years ago are significantly less tainted now. While the change is hard to quantify — and at some dumpsites, imported plastic has simply been replaced by domestic trash — activists who monitor such sites say the improvement is undeniable.
Indonesian industries want easy-to-recycle plastics — particularly PET, or polyethylene terephthalate, commonly used in beverage bottles. Such material isn’t waste, said Novrizal Tahar, director of solid waste management at the Ministry of Environment and Forestry. “This is raw material.” Manufacturers — making new bottles, or consumer goods such as buckets and crates — rely on imports because Indonesia’s lack of formal trash-sorting systems means domestic supplies are inadequate, said Arisman, executive director of the Center for Southeast Asian Studies in Jakarta, who like many Indonesians has only one name.
But recycling plastics, even those easiest to process, is problematic: It can concentrate dangerous chemicals such as benzene and brominated dioxins at higher levels, and the resulting material is typically of lower quality than the original. Recycling also releases microplastics into the air and water, and in poor countries unable to strictly enforce labor and environmental protections, it can expose workers to hazardous toxins. Outsourcing those risks to nations like Indonesia, in Ismawati’s view, “is a new type of colonialism.”
It became apparent after China’s closure that much of what was being stuffed into shipping containers in the United States, Europe, and the rest of the developed world was badly contaminated with trash.
While Indonesia has begun to get a grip on its imports, the scrap trade’s opaque global web is an ever-shifting cat-and-mouse game. When one country erects barriers, those with material to get rid of often just find someplace else to send it. The U.S., for example, ships less plastic waste to Southeast Asia than it did even a year ago, but it sends more to Mexico and India. European nations that previously shipped to Thailand now favor Turkey, data show.
The trade’s tumult has also led to increasing amounts of the plastic that North Americans and Europeans sort for recycling simply being incinerated close to home. The Basel Action Network, a Seattle-based advocacy group that monitors waste shipments and advocates for tighter restrictions, has been putting GPS trackers into U.S. recycling bins and has found that some of it ends up in domestic landfills.
In Indonesia, while the reduction in problematic imports is real, the limitations of progress are visible about 50 miles outside the capital, Jakarta, where a giant mountain of plastic towers above red rooftops, emerald-green rice fields, and groves of banana trees. The plastic stretches as far as 10 football fields, at least, and it’s piled so high it takes a few minutes to climb from the narrow, rutted road at the mound’s base to its top. The plastic is clean and odorless, and it feels spongy underfoot. Much is shredded, but there are legible labels — Trader Joe’s roasted chicken breast, salt-and-vinegar peanuts from New Zealand, bottle caps with Korean writing, wrapping from an Italian children’s audiobook.
The scrap mountain in the city of Serang, near the northwestern coast of Indonesia’s most populous island, Java, sits outside a factory owned by Indah Kiat Pulp & Paper Products, one of the nation’s largest paper companies. Mills like this commonly import used paper for recycling, and plastic is sometimes mixed in with shipments.
Indah Kiat adds to the heap every day. Among the informal workers who bring scavenged material to a plastic-sorting business across the street from the pile is Kasih, a woman with big, dark eyes and dirty, bare feet, who climbs the plastic mountain every day after her morning job, selling bananas. Carrying what they find in big white sacks — bottles and fragments of wire are most valuable — she and her husband together earn between $2 and $4.50 from seven hours’ work. “It’s very exhausting” and sometimes leaves her struggling for breath, Kasih said. At the sorting lot, other workers set the plastic in the sun to dry, then bale it up for sale to larger middlemen or to manufacturers of low-grade products like twine.
Letchumi Achanah, head of strategic engagement and advocacy at Asia Pulp & Paper, Indah Kiat’s parent company, acknowledged the plastic arrived with the company’s imports. She said the factory complied with all regulations and now burns unwanted plastic as fuel — a use embraced by Indonesia’s government but assailed by environmentalists as a source of both toxic pollution and climate-warming gases.
Even if the 2 percent limit on impurities is met — environmentalists say contamination, while much reduced, often exceeds that cap — the small fraction can add up to a great deal of waste plastic. Industry insists shipments do meet the limit. Exporters “have to prove by opening [each] bale of recycled paper” that a shipment complies before they can send it to Indonesia, said Liana Bratasida, executive director of the Indonesian Pulp & Paper Association.
But in a nation still struggling to shed its history of corruption, enforcement remains a challenge. During the peak plastic smuggling years, around 2019, bribery of customs officers eased the entry of illicit shipments, Arisman said. Poorly sorted waste imports were always illegal, but some frontline officers “only care about their pocket money,” he said, so “on the ground, sometimes, it’s a negotiation.” The customs directorate cracked down on such corruption, but its stricter stance can ebb and flow, he added.
Critics claim that government efforts have sometimes been more show than substance. In 2019, officials ordered some tainted shipments sent back to their port or origin. But the Indonesian word officials used in publicly touting the orders actually meant “re-export,” and the rejected waste often went to other developing countries, Ismawati said. The announcements were just “bragging,” she said, and the containers were “not returned to sender.”
While the very existence of the Basel Convention’s plastic amendments is an achievement, providing a cudgel for pushing signatories to do better, implementation has been disappointing, advocates say. The amendments’ potential was limited from the start by the absence of the U.S., the world’s biggest generator of plastic waste, which signed the convention in 1990 but never ratified it. And many of the countries that do participate have failed to adequately enforce the new rules, Jim Puckett, executive director of the Basel Action Network, said.
Many are also punching loopholes into the agreement, sometimes by misapplying a provision that allows trade outside the convention’s authority if it is covered by agreements of equal environmental stringency, he said. The most egregious abuse is by the U.S., which as a non-party should not ship unsorted waste to participants but has inked improper deals with Canada and Mexico, he said.
Carrying what they find in big white sacks — bottles and fragments of wire are most valuable — Kasih and her husband together earn between $2 and $4.50 from seven hours’ work.
Rich nations “are finding ways to wiggle out from under the agreement,” and the poorer ones “are just going, ‘Well, we’re not going to bother,’” Puckett said. With no enforcement mechanism, “if countries are not able to be shamed into doing the right thing, the whole thing can just unravel.”
Shipping waste in any form is about pushing the costs of dealing with it onto someone else. Exporters gain from off-loading the expense of treating waste, and importers gain by cherry-picking profitable material and dumping the rest, he said.
Anti-waste advocates point to another flaw in the Basel convention: it fails to regulate plastic that has been processed into pellets or other forms meant to be burned as fuel in industrial facilities like cement kilns and power plants. Indonesia is embracing such uses for its own plastic waste, said Tahar, the government official, who considers it harmless as long as emissions are treated to remove toxins.
Australia, which promised to much fanfare in 2020 that it would stop exporting plastic waste, is among those now eager to turn its waste into fuel pellets, then ship them to countries such as Indonesia.
Rich nations “are finding ways to wiggle out from under the agreement,” and the poorer ones “are just going, ‘Well, we’re not going to bother,’” Puckett said.
But further change is on the horizon. In January, the European Parliament proposed requiring countries receiving European recyclables to demonstrate, through independent audits, that they can manage them sustainably and would gradually ban the export of plastic waste entirely. The European Parliament and European Commission are negotiating the specifics of the final measure.
In Indonesia, importers worry the rules will be onerous. Lannawati Hendra, a vice president at PT. Surabaya Mekabox, a paper and cardboard company, said the country’s own inspection requirements had already added about 5 percent to the cost of their products. The pending E.U. measure, she warned, will likely make it harder to import wastepaper.
Still, others see signs of hope. Ismawati pointed to new plastics recycling plants in Britain as an encouraging development. If wealthy countries really believe in recycling, she argued, they ought to do it at home, not export the process’s burden and risks. “How come it’s our problem?” she asked. “It’s your mess. You should be able to help yourself.”
The Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting funded travel and research for this story.
Beth Gardiner is a journalist and the author of “Choked: Life and Breath in the Age of Air Pollution.” Her work has appeared in publications including The New York Times, The Guardian, National Geographic, and Smithsonian, and she is a former longtime Associated Press reporter.