The US exports its plastic waste. But now other countries are rejecting it.

When it comes to plastic, recycling has almost always been a lie. But that guilt-free plastic consumption is so built into our infrastructure and way of life that we keep insisting on living that lie anyway. In truth, less than 10% of plastic has ever been recycled, because the process involved is just too expensive. Which is why the US just ships all that plastic waste overseas and lets someone else deal with the problem.

In 2019, China banned the importation of plastic waste. Malaysia became the new #1 destination for it. That same year, 180 countries agreed to amend the Basel Convention on waste management to regulate and reduce plastic waste exports. But that hasn't stopped the US. As The New York Times reports:

Because Basel rules prohibit member nations from trading waste with countries that have not ratified the convention, the new regulations now effectively ban the trade in most kinds of plastic waste between the United States and the rest of the world.

American companies, for now, appear to have opted to continue to put their scrap onto ships out of the country at an even faster pace. And the scrap industry says that much of the plastic that was being shipped in January is considered legitimate under the Basel rules by the companies around the world that are purchasing it to use in manufacturing.


Data for January showed that exports of scrap plastic from the United States edged upward, to 48 million tons from 45 million tons the previous January. Exports to poorer nations were virtually unchanged from a year ago, totaling 25 million tons.

In other words: the international plastic waste agreement technically only regulates imports. But the United States — not a country renowned for taking responsibility for its externalities! — can still technically export the plastics, since they never agreed to the Basel Convention amendment. And in fact, we're exporting more than ever!

So what happens with all that plastic waste we're forcing on Malaysia and other countries? According to the Times, those countries are trying to send it back, or keep it on the ships. But that's not always successful.

Countries Tried to Curb Trade in Plastic Waste. The U.S. Is Shipping More. [Hiroko Tabuchi and Michael Corkery / The New York Times]

Image: Public Domain via Pexels

Full disclosure: I also write for Wirecutter, which is owned by the New York Times Company, which also publishes the New York Times.