Since Beijing shunned waste imports, Hong Kong has deluged Southeast Asia with plastic

Zoe Low

Hong Kong has become one of the top re-exporters of plastic waste from developed countries to Southeast Asia since mainland China’s ban on waste imports last year, an investigation by a local green group has found.

In 2018, the city re-exported 280,000 tonnes of plastic waste worth HK$727 million (US$93 million) from the US, Japan, Germany, Britain and Mexico to countries such Thailand, Malaysia and Vietnam.

Kylie Yeung Kai-ching, project researcher for The Green Earth, which conducted the investigation, said the volumes of waste which the Southeast Asian countries have to handle “has surpassed the volume they are used to handling”.

Hong Kong ranked second among exporters of plastic waste to Thailand, sending 129 kilotons in 2018 and 72 kilotons from January to September this year. In Malaysia, the city ranked fifth in 2018, while in the Philippines it ranked fifth in 2018 and third so far this year. Facing devastating environmental impacts from imported waste – such as toxic fumes from its processing or beauty spots covered in rubbish – all three countries have started tightening the rules on plastic imports.

Mainland China’s waste ban came in January 2018, with the country no longer taking in waste paper, plastics, textiles or slag – a by-product made when metal is separated from its ore. It also brought stricter limits on the level of contaminants allowed in imported materials.

Before the ban, the mainland was a major destination for plastic waste, receiving almost half of the 14 million tonnes shipped for recycling in 2016.

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After it, Hong Kong’s plastic re-exporters needed to find new destinations. In 2018, the city’s exports of plastic waste to Thailand increased by 177 times from 2016, making up almost a third such imports to the country. In Malaysia, the amount of imported plastic waste from Hong Kong multiplied by 75 times, while Vietnam saw an increase of 21 times.

“It is also worth considering whether China’s ban on waste imports has caused plastic waste to be sent to other developing countries which may not have the proper facilities to handle waste,” Yeung said. She pointed out that, since the ban, Laos had appeared for the first time on the list of countries receiving waste from Hong Kong.

Meanwhile, more than 60 per cent of the plastic waste being sent from developed countries is made up of “high-risk” plastic, which is highly contaminated by other rubbish and would yield very low-value recycled plastic.

“This waste is polluting groundwater and causing health problems for the communities in those countries,” project researcher Yeung said. “This is why The Green Earth wants each country to deal with its own waste in their own countries. It is a problem of environmental justice.”

Hong Kong became a convenient hub for plastic waste traders who set up companies to re-export waste bought from developed countries, as shipping the waste back to Hong Kong from its intended destination cost less than sending it back to North America or Europe, Edwin Lau Che-feng, The Green Earth’s founder and executive director said.

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“If the waste is sent back, the traders would likely look for other developing nations to send it to, or if it is not a lot of waste, it could end up in Hong Kong’s landfills,” Lau said.

Amendments to the Basel Convention – which regulates the international trade of hazardous waste and its disposal – will come into force next year requiring the prior consent of importing countries for the export of mixed, unrecyclable and contaminated plastic waste.

According to Dr Chung Shan-shan, who heads Baptist University’s environmental and public health management programme, Hong Kong as a re-exporter could end up returning plastic waste to its origin country.

She said the idea behind the amendments “is that countries take responsibility and become self-sufficient in managing their own waste”.

The Green Earth warned that the changes could instead lead to Hong Kong becoming the world’s junkyard, with the waste lingering in the city and potentially going to landfill. It urged the government to take stronger action against plastic waste traders, increasing the number of checks on waste cargo and adding processing costs for them.

The Environmental Protection Department (EPD) said anyone wishing to import or export recyclables must apply to it for a permit. “The department works closely with the Customs and Excise Department to conduct checks on containers suspected of shipping illegal waste based on intelligence exchange and risk assessment,” it said.

Between 2016 and 2018, the EPD checked 2,200 containers, of which 100 were imported plastic waste, and 980 were for re-export. The EPD said it would track the containers to ensure they did not stay in Hong Kong or get dumped in the city.

The Customs and Excise Department said it would refer any suspected illegal imports of waste it detected to the EPD.

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