OOne hundred and 41 containers containing rotting plastic waste have been traveling for over a year. The containers are scattered between Turkey, Greece, and Vietnam, far away from their origins in Germany. They shed light on the hidden global trade of plastic waste.
Arriving in Turkey in the latter half of 2020, just before a ban was placed on mixed plastic waste imports, the containers quickly became the focus of a battle among traders, shipping lines, multiple governments and environmental campaigners for their return.
Turkish authorities refused entry to the containers, leaving them stranded in limbo. They began to rot in the ports as they sat there. After a few months, all the filthy waste was removed and some of the contents had fermented from the presence of microorganisms. It smelled terrible and was covered with rats and mice, according Sedat, a plastics pollution researcher, who is based south of Adana.
The year-long tale of the 141 containers is only a small portion of international trade in plastic trash, the ugly underbelly that is recycling in the global north. Plastic waste, especially the mixed plastic from households is often sent overseas where it is melted, dumped or burned.
Mixed plastics are considered the worst and most undesirable waste in the trade. They often contain household rubbish, such as bottles or packing, which can lead to a mixture of recyclable plastics with nonrecyclable items. Some traders are hiding mixed plastics banned from imports behind other items that can pass regulations to get them past inspectors.
After the company involved in their original journey lost its import licence, the containers remained stuck. The consignee redirected us, saying that customs had to be sorted out. We discovered that their import license was canceled and they were then blacklisted by Turkey. Omer Bulduk, a Turkish freight company, stated that some containers contained hazardous city waste. He said that it was just garbage.
Some of the top recyclers in the world are also the largest plastic waste exporters. Germany was one of these countries. Named the top recycler in the worldThree years ago, the World Economic Forum published this report. ExportsThe EU averages 1m tonnes per year of plastic waste, more than any other EU nation. The UK exports 61% of its plastic waste, according to recent dataFrom the British Plastics Foundation
There are only two ways to deal with plastic waste if you continue to use more plastic. The first is incineration. The second is dumping. Incinerate if you don’t have any dumping in the country. Gndodu said that this can have a carbon impact and that many countries trying to reduce carbon emissions don’t want their own waste incinerated.
The UK, France, Germany and Germany are the leading European waste producers. They need to find solutions. The solution they have found is to export to poorer countries that lack effective waste management systems, environmental legislation, and regulations. This is waste colonialism, said he.
In May, the Turkish foreign minister contacted their counterparts in Germany to request that the containers be returned. Bulduk claims that the German side claimed too much time had passed, and that they can’t accept them. Angela Griesbach of Baden-Wrttemberg’s waste management authority, who is now in charge of the containers, stated that this was likely a misinterpretation and that the containers contained legal waste when it arrived in Turkey.
Campaigners stepped up to the plate when some of the containers of German refuse were suddenly reexported to Vietnam. Activists believe the 16 containers that were sent last July to Hai Phong were a test to see how others would follow the same route and dispose of the rotting containers completely. It is not clear who authorized their onward travel, especially since waste can be sent directly from EU countries to those outside of the OECD. is, New controls for mixed plastic exportsContainers that were introduced last January must be approved by the Vietnamese authorities before they can be imported.
Vietnam will soon implement a ban on plastic waste imports. However, the country remains a popular destination in the global plastic recycling industry. Workers are paid less than five dollars per day to sort plastic into recyclable and non-recyclable elements. The former are melted down, which exposes others to toxic fumes.
Jim Puckett, of the Basel Action Network (a group that campaigns against plastic pollution), tracked 37 containers from Germany heading towards Piraeus port in Athens in November. He became suspicious that they were also headed for Vietnam.
I quit what I was doing, and sent a strong message of protest to the Greek authorities. They couldn’t allow this waste to board a ship to go to Vietnam. He stated that it was illegal and that it should be returned back to Germany. The Greek authorities were alerted and placed a barricade around the containers at the dock in Piraeus. They remain there.
He said that there are almost 100 containers in Turkey and they are very concerned about their destination to countries like Vietnam. In an open letterGermany’s newly established environment ministry was challenged by a coalition of green groups, including BAN, to take moral and political leadership in reclaiming the 141 containers.
The Guardian contacted the environment ministry and they referred questions to Griesbach. She said that campaigners are correct in stating that there are many legal issues and legal gray areas. She said that while a voluntary return shipment from a German company was possible, it is not yet possible. She also stated that the German authorities weren’t aware that some containers had been reexported to Vietnam.
She stated that the containers could be returned to Turkey if certain conditions were met. If the problem isn’t an internal Turkish enforcement issue, the German authorities as well as the German company are willing and able to take back the waste in compliance with the law. This requires that the Turkish side cooperate and provide information. The Turkish environment ministry didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Two countries reporting a sudden increase in plastic waste are Turkey and Vietnam. This is after China’s 2018 decision to ban imports of waste. The impact of the decision was felt all over the globe. AccordingThe United Nations added that countries in the global north would have to face the real cost of their plastic addiction rather than shipping it to China. China has taken nearly half of the world’s garbage since 1992.
Puckett stated that the notion that you shouldn’t worry about it, and you can recycle it, was sold to us. Until three years ago, no one even looked at what recycling looked like in China. We are putting more plastic waste into the environment every day than ever before and there is no destination. It’s become a game about who will take it, because there are mountains and mountains of plastic waste.
The result is a frenetic hunt for new destinations to analyze. Plastic waste estimated at 111 million tonnesThe ban will not apply to imports between now and 2030. China has banned imports but continues to profit from global trade in plastics via its dominance of shipping trade. Cosco shipping is a Chinese state owned company that transported all 141 containers. Cosco Shipping did not respond to requests for comment.
Matthew Gordon, Yale University environmental researcher who is part a team compiling an analytic. Atlas of plastic wasteTo show new plastic dumping locations around the world, he said he was surprised at the number of countries included in their initial findings. These included Bosnia, Thailand and Romania.
He said that South-east Asia is clearly a hotspot in the wake of the China import ban. One reason is that container ships carrying manufactured goods from China to the US offer very low freight costs on their return journeys. It is often cheaper for US exporters to ship plastics overseas than to deal directly with them at home.
Turkey is increasingly being seen as a frontline in the battle between local plastic importers’ desire to remain in the global recycling trade and rising environmental concerns. After an Greenpeace investigatesTurkey temporarily banned imports of plastic products from British and German supermarket chains last May. However, it soon repealed the law. Gndodu claimed that plastic waste was resurfacing after a brief lull.
Adana, Turkey’s hub for plastic waste exports, was the scene of an open letter from local plastics traders to Recep Tayyip Eroan asking him to allow the sector to continue. This letter was part of a campaign that rebranded plastic waste imports under the slogan Its Not waste, its raw material.
According to them, the plastic waste industry employs 300,000. Traders said they were the ones who clean the environment and not polluting it.
Many Turkish citizens disagree. When asked how they felt about the 800,000.00 tonnes of plastic waste Turkey imported from the EU last year, most answered very badly. Others cited a slogan that is quickly becoming a rallying cry against plastics imports in their country: Turkey’s not a garbage can.
Gke Saraolu provides additional reporting