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How Rich Countries are Redirecting Climate Blame

By Lydia Prendergast


                                        Image by Sergei Tokmakov, Esq. https://Terms.Law from Pixabay 


When looking at the flat data behind which countries have the largest amount of plastic emissions sent into the oceans, it’s easy to assume that the data is clear: that “more than 80% of it” comes from Asia. But, when examining that data, it’s easy to have tunnel vision. The numbers don’t look at the plastic that is emitted domestically, in which countries export waste overseas.“If it was the case that the UK exported a lot of its plastic waste to countries where waste management systems are poor, and lots of plastic leaks into the environment, the UK would have a large indirect impact on ocean pollution.” that the data would not directly show (according to Our World in Data author Hannah Ritchie’s research). 


Our World in Data shows that is precisely the case: Europe was the biggest exporter of plastic emissions in 2020, sending off 3.9 million tons to neighboring countries, Turkey, and Hong Kong, among many other places. This emitting of plastic has a serious impact on climate change.

While Europe is the biggest exporter, we can see in this graph that Japan and North America also contribute a large amount. Their plastic waste is being tossed around to other parts of the world in an attempt to take the blame off of their backs. 









The U.S. in particular cannot even handle its own domestic recycling industry. “We’re not able to separate plastic economically to a level where it’s isolated polymers and not contaminated with at least 5 percent or more of other stuff,” said Jim Puckett, the nonprofit Basel Action Network’s founder and executive director (according to Investigate West’s article “Rich Countries Are Illegally Exporting Plastic Trash to Poor Countries, Data Suggests” by Joseph Winters). 


“If the U.S. can’t even sort its own plastic waste, Puckett asked rhetorically, then how can it be sorting hundreds of millions of pounds of it for export? “It just isn’t happening,” he said.”


The situation seems grim because of larger, high income countries’ inability to manage their own waste. We can see this trend pretty clearly in the graph below; “high income countries made up 68.18% of all plastic waste imports in 2021, while low income countries made up 0.1%.” according to Our World in Data.













From these two line graphs, you can see that while waste exports are decreasing overall, high-income countries still come in at around 3,963,244 tonnes, while low income countries exist around 1,911 tonnes. That is a colossal difference.


This leaves us to wonder: why is this the case? You would think higher income countries would have more access to effective ways of reducing and properly disposing of plastic waste, and therefore reducing plastic emissions. While that might be true, it doesn’t mean that those countries are going to do that. We have a large systemic issue of redirecting the blame here, in which wealthier countries do not want to be exposed for their lack of initiative behind reducing plastic waste (which really comes down to a lack of effort on the side of large corporations, who do not want to risk losing any money). So in order to escape such blame, they have made a habit of exporting their plastic waste to other areas. 


But this cannot go on for much longer. “Poorer countries are not a dumping ground for the rich,” Ritchie writes. “To really tackle the problem we need to do two things: scale waste management systems in rich countries… and, importantly, improve waste management infrastructure and practices in low-to-middle-income countries, as this is where most plastic pollution originates.”


“We don’t have illusions that it’s going to be easy,” Jim Puckett said, “but we have to get a grip on the amount of plastic we’re producing if we want to impact plastic waste.” Because the domesticated exporting of plastic waste does nothing but unfairly place blame; higher-income countries need to take accountability for their actions, and use the resources and funds they have to limit their plastic use.


Data Source: 

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