Amidst heightening tension in the South China Sea, Southeast Asia faced yet another challenge: an influx of waste products. On July 18, 2017, China declared its National Sword policy, banning the import of twenty-four waste product varieties, including certain plastics, papers, and textiles. In justifying the National Sword policy to the World Trade Organization, China’s ministries cited copious amounts of hazardous and contaminated materials in waste streams. Deeming this contamination injurious to public health and the environment, the country ended its role as the world’s largest importer of waste. Immense demand for plastic material from China’s emerging manufacturing industry made imports essential, particularly those deriving from high U.S. consumption. The world’s waste producers continue to experience major headwinds in addressing this unforeseen policy modification. Meanwhile, the new recipients of global waste, Southeast Asian countries, bear the brunt of today’s waste distribution. With waste piling up abroad and environmental damage on the horizon, Southeast Asia possesses the coercive power to end the paradigm of neglect.
With the news of China’s waste restrictions, the import of plastic waste jumped 171% in Southeast Asia, creating a new source of inequity between the core exporters and periphery importers. More specifically, China limited waste imports to those with 0.5% contamination or less, an impossibly restrictive threshold. Meanwhile, the world’s largest producer of waste, the United States, lacks self-sufficiency in its recycling and waste management industries. America exported approximately 40% of its plastics, paper, and other recyclables to China. Compounding the issue, the United States produces a stunning 258 million tons of solid waste annually, 48 million tons more than China produced in 2017. As America fails to curb its waste generation and embraces the open waste market, the burden falls on Southeast Asia to account for China’s former volume of waste imports. Unless Southeast Asia plans a new course of action, its constituent states will suffer the byproducts of a globalized market, a system China wisely escaped.
America’s foreign policy approach only exacerbates the unsustainable status quo, emphasizing trade relations and turning a blind eye to its own culpability in environmental damage. Rather than proposing a sustainable alternative to its practices, a U.S. trade representative asserted that China caused a “fundamental disruption in global supply chains for scrap materials,” which shifts recyclable materials from “reuse and toward disposal.” Yet this assertion is not only shortsighted, but patently inaccurate. Chinese waste processors mismanaged an estimated 76% of plastic waste near coastal areas in 2010, resulting in 1.3 to 1.5 million metric tons of plastic entering coastal waters, indicating a lack of U.S. accountability for the fate of its own imports. Much of the remaining plastic drifted to landfills, which researchers associate with reduced air quality, higher rates of reported illness, and the negative social impact of health fears. Contrary to the representations of American diplomats, the mass export of recyclable waste never contributed to sustainability. Dependence on China only heightened the deleterious effects of America’s consumption, and Southeast Asian processors are similarly underprepared to take on the challenge.
In an attempt to lessen the impact of China’s ban, waste exporters turned to Southeast Asian countries. Malaysia bears the brunt of this transition, filling China’s shoes as the world’s largest plastic waste importer. Comparable to China, the country encounters difficulties in plastic waste processing, giving rise to an estimated 57% rate of mismanaged plastic waste and most plastic disposed of in landfills. However, Malaysia’s plastic waste process differs significantly in one key area: profitability.
Despite the energy savings from recycling, 81% of Malaysian plastic manufacturing firms select new plastic resin instead. Ultimately, the cost of recycled plastic trumps that of new plastic, creating poor investment conditions for recycling businesses. Unlike Malaysia, China relied on recycled plastic to build its manufacturing empire, forming a supply-side necessity for a robust recycling industry. Importantly, this strategy also ended China’s dependence on the United States. On both the supply and demand sides of today’s waste trade, renewed self-sufficiency is essential for improving rates of mismanagement. If a limited input of materials (particularly, domestic waste exclusively) emerges as the norm, Malaysian authorities and processors would be able to more effectively prevent plastic pollution and influence consumer behavior at home. Given the lackluster efforts of the United States to manage its waste stream, diplomatic goodwill is no longer sufficient.
Like China, Southeast Asian countries must threaten to ban all large-scale plastic imports. China’s National Sword program successfully cut plastic imports by 99% in just one year after its implementation. Such a plastic import policy ought to be a model for other countries, not the pariah besmirched by the United States. The success of China’s program serves as an example to major economies that developing states will stand up to environmental degradation. In a recent sign of resistance against irresponsible waste exporters, Malaysia returned more than 300 containers of unlicensed, contaminated waste to exporters in April 2021. To the extent globalization shifts undesirable wastes to ill-prepared periphery states, free trade is no longer a viable option and disproportionately benefits developed economies.
As the primary recipients of global plastic waste today, Malaysia and other Southeast Asian states hold immense leverage over major waste generators, just as China once did. In fact, municipalities in the United States experienced immense distress from China’s plastic ban. With no means of readily exporting recyclable materials, hundreds of cities in the United States paused or curtailed their recycling programs, flooding landfills and incinerators with additional material. Communities near landfill operations and incineration, especially those populated by ethnic and racial minorities, report above-average prevalence of negative health effects from environmental toxins. Despite the clear injustices at home, President Biden’s key “Build Back Better” framework fails to acknowledge resolution of the recycling crisis as a central issue. As long as American firms globalize waste streams, the harmful externalities of the plastic trade will contaminate the livelihoods of those in Southeast Asia. Given a dearth of leadership on the recycling crisis, it is clear America must undergo a paradigm shift in its political priorities.
As a unified bloc, Southeast Asian states should outline the severe impacts America faced under the National Sword policy and threaten a waste import ban. This would force American decision-makers to come to terms with the recycling crisis and prevent needless suffering for civilians. Under the threat of a waste import ban, the United States will recognize its domestic waste processing industry is wholly unprepared. If the United States ultimately refused this offer, it would need to spend vast sums propping up a recycling industry with high U.S. labor costs. Shifting American waste dumping to other developing states is also untenable. Under new Basel Convention amendments accepted by nearly every state, governments possess the right to refuse plastic waste imports, while exports of unsorted, contaminated waste are prohibited. In effect, maintaining a fruitful relationship with Southeast Asia is necessary to ensure a destination for American waste. The United States would ramp up existing investment and aid into Malaysia, along with other impacted states that require environmental and development funds. In return, the negotiations should allow for waste imports commensurate with the degree of responsible processing in each state. A positive feedback loop of more aid for more recycling capacity ensures mutual benefit for the United States and Southeast Asian states. With the cooperation of other developed partners and the United Nations, the United States could further enhance the efficiency and sustainability of waste processors in Southeast Asia, uplifting the global environment. A new system of trade is within reach.
To add additional coercive power to a threatened import ban, Malaysia ought to rally its partners within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. If only a limited number of states proceed with an import ban, America could simply find shelter in the remainder. The region can only improve environmental conditions and obtain crucial funding through collective action. Of course, one prominent concern to the United States is China’s growing presence in the South China Sea. If ASEAN members were to place collective well-being first, an agreement with China would create a powerful symbol of cooperation. In a negotiated deal, China might even agree to reopen some of its plastic imports in return for loosened U.S. financial restrictions. As American national security experts grapple with countering China, the country’s leaders fret any loss of regional partners to China’s sphere of influence. The wisest policy would be to address the concerns of Southeast Asia, instead of leaving them to China’s opportunistic diplomacy. In a sign of optimism, the United States and China proved there is room to negotiate environmental goals at COP26. With China and Southeast Asia on board, American diplomats would face strong domestic and international pressure to act.
As plastic pollution devastates the developing world, conditions are only set to worsen in coming decades. From 2016 to 2050, waste generation will rise from 2.01 billion tons to 3.40 billion tons, largely due to changing lifestyles in emerging economies. If the global community fails to take action today, all states will reckon with disastrous health and environmental consequences. Southeast Asian states have the opportunity to effect a paradigm shift in the global waste trade. A threat to ban plastic waste imports by Southeast Asia is a viable solution to the region’s environmental and economic challenges.