ohn hundred and 41 containers filled with rotting plastic waste have been traveling for over a year. Scattered between Turkey, Greece and Vietnam, far from their German origins, the container journey sheds light on the hidden global trade in plastic waste.
Arriving in Turkey in late 2020, shortly before the ban on imports of mixed plastic waste took effect, the containers quickly became the center of a battle between traders, a shipping company, several governments and activists. environmentalists demanding their return.
Turkish authorities refused entry to the containers, leaving them in limbo. As they languished in ports across the country, the content began to rot. “After a few months, all the dirty waste inside was disturbed, and some had fermented due to the presence of microorganisms. It smelled really bad and was covered in rats and mice, ”said Sedat Gündoğdu, a plastic pollution researcher based in the southern city of Adana.
The one-year saga of 141 containers is only a small part of the international plastic waste trade, the ugly belly of recycling in the north. Plastic waste, especially mixed plastic from households, is frequently sent overseas to countries with lax environmental regulations, where it is melted into plastic pellets, thrown away or simply burned.
Mixed plastics are the dirtiest and least desirable waste on the market, as they typically contain household garbage such as bottles or packaging, which means a mess of recyclable plastics with non-recyclable items. As many countries move to ban imports of mixed plastics, observers say some traders have started hiding bales of banned mixed plastics behind others who are passing regulations to get them past inspectors.
The containers remained stranded after a company involved in their initial trip lost its import license and disappeared. “The recipient delayed us by saying that there were things to be settled with customs. But then we found out that their import license had been canceled and they had been blacklisted by Turkey. Laboratory tests have shown that some loads in the containers are hazardous urban waste, ”said Omer Bulduk of Monax, a Turkish freight company responsible for receiving the containers. “It’s just rubbish,” he added.
Some of the countries that are among the world’s best recyclers are also the biggest exporters of plastic waste: Germany was named the world’s largest recycler by the World Economic Forum three years ago, but exports an average of 1 million tonnes of plastic waste per year, more than any other nation in the EU. The UK is not doing much better, exporting 61% of its plastic waste according to recent data from the British Plastics Foundation.
“When you keep consuming more plastic, there are only two ways to fight waste. One is incineration, the second is landfill. If there is no landfill in your country, you should incinerate. But it has a carbon footprint, and many countries trying to cut carbon emissions don’t want to incinerate their own waste, ”Gündoğdu said.
“Some of the major waste generators in Europe, like the UK, France and Germany, need to find ways to solve this problem. And the way they’ve found is to export to poorer countries without effective waste management systems or environmental laws and regulations. It’s wasted colonialism, ”he said.
In May, the Turkish Foreign Ministry contacted its German counterparts to demand the return of the containers. According to Bulduk, the German side “claimed that too much time had passed and that it could not accept it”. Angela Griesbach, spokeswoman for the Baden-Württemberg state waste management authority now responsible for monitoring containers, said it was “likely a misunderstanding”, adding that the containers contained waste that was legal when it arrived in Turkey.
When some of the German waste containers were suddenly re-exported to Vietnam, activists took action. Campaigners believe the 16 containers sent to Hai Phong port last July were a test, to see if others could later follow the same route in order to get rid of the rotten containers entirely. But who authorized their subsequent trip remains a mystery, especially since sending waste directly from an EU country to countries outside the OECD is banned, and new controls on plastic exports. mixed products introduced last January require the express consent of the Vietnamese authorities to import the containers.
Vietnam’s ban on imports of plastic waste is due to go into effect in 2025, but it remains a popular destination for the global plastic recycling trade. There, workers are paid less than £ 5 a day to sort the plastic into recyclable and non-recyclable items. The former are melted, exposing those nearby to toxic fumes.
Jim Puckett of the Basel Action Network, a group that combats plastic pollution, tracked 37 of the German containers heading to the port of Piraeus near Athens in November, and realized that they were also heading to Vietnam.
“I gave up what I was doing and sent a strong message to the Greek authorities, saying that they could not let this waste get on a boat and go to Vietnam. It’s illegal and he should be sent back to Germany, ”he said. The Greek authorities took note of this and sealed off the containers at the Piraeus quay, where they are located.
“There are also nearly a hundred containers in Turkey, and we are very worried that they are going to countries like Vietnam,” he added. In an open letter to the newly inaugurated German Environment Ministry, a coalition of green groups, including BAN, demanded that they “take moral and political leadership” and recover the 141 containers.
Contacted by the Guardian, the Environment Department referred questions to Griesbach. “Activists are right that there are a lot of legal questions and legal gray areas,” she said. She stressed that “a voluntary return by a German company involved is planned but has not yet been possible”, and said German authorities were unaware that some containers had been re-exported to Vietnam.
If certain conditions were met, she added, containers in Turkey could be returned. “If the problem is not an internal application problem in Turkey, the German authorities, as well as the German company voluntarily, are willing to take back this waste according to the law. However, this requires cooperation and corresponding information from Turkey. Turkey’s Environment Ministry did not respond when contacted for comment on the matter.
Vietnam and Turkey are among a growing number of countries that have reported a sudden increase in plastic waste, after China’s decision to ban waste imports in 2018 turned out to be a turning point for trade. global. The decision “went around the world,” according to the United Nations, which added that countries in the global north “will finally have to face the true cost of their plastic addiction instead of shipping the problem to China, which has recovered nearly half of the world’s waste since 1992 ”.
“We were sold the idea of ’don’t worry, we’ll recycle it’ – and no one looked at what recycling looked like in China until three years ago,” Puckett said. “We are dumping more plastic waste into the world, more every day than the day before, and there is no destination for it. It’s now become a game of who will take it because there are mountains of plastic waste and it doesn’t stop. “
The result is a frantic hunt for new destinations for an estimated 111 million metric tonnes of plastic waste displaced by the ban by 2030. While China has banned imports, it continues to profit from the global plastics trade through its dominance of maritime trade. . Cosco Shipping, the company that transported the 141 containers, is a Chinese state-owned company. Cosco did not respond when contacted to comment on the issue.
Matthew Gordon, an environmental researcher at Yale University who is part of a team compiling a “plastic waste atlas” to show new plastic dump sites around the world, said he was surprised at the number of countries represented in their first conclusions, including Bosnia, Thailand, Romania, Malaysia and Turkey.
“Southeast Asia clearly appears to be a hot spot, especially following China’s import ban,” he said. “One of the reasons for this seems to be that when container ships travel from countries like China to the United States carrying manufactured goods, they offer extremely low freight on the return trip – otherwise they would come back empty. For example, exporters in the United States often find it cheaper to send plastics overseas than to process them at home. “
Turkey has increasingly found itself at the forefront of the fight between the desire of local plastic importers to remain in the global recycling business and growing environmental concerns. After a Greenpeace investigation found plastic products from UK and German supermarket chains destined for recycling were dumped by the roadside, Turkey briefly banned all plastic imports last May before repealing the law shortly thereafter. Gündoğdu said new landfills for plastic waste were coming back after a brief lull.
In Adana, a hub for plastic waste imports, a coalition of local plastics traders wrote their own open letter to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, imploring him to allow the industry to continue. The letter was part of a campaign to rename plastic waste imports, under the slogan “It’s not waste, it’s raw material.”
The plastic waste industry, they said, employs 300,000 Turks. Traders have described themselves as “those who clean the environment, do not pollute it”.
Many Turkish citizens disagree. When asked what they think of the 800,000 tonnes of plastic waste Turkey imported from the EU last year, a majority said ‘very bad’, while others quoted a slogan which quickly becomes a rallying cry against plastic imports into their country: “Turkey is not a garbage can.
Additional reporting by Gökçe Saraçoğlu