UN Cites Southeast Asia as Destination for the World’s Illegal Waste

Published: 03 April 2024

GarbageSoutheast Asia has imported more than $50 billion in waste over the past 5 years, a market that is wide open for corruption. (Photo: Yoav Lerman, Flickr, License)

By Henry Pope

A new U.N. report has revealed how countries across Southeast Asia are exploited by the illegal trade of waste via black market dumping operations and the exploitation of legal loopholes that allow criminals to circumvent regulations altogether.

Turning the Tide, published by the U.N. Office for Drugs and Crime (UNODC), outlines how Southeast Asia is a hotspot for illegal waste shipped in from around the world. This includes vast quantities of non-degradable waste that accumulate by millions of tonnes per year.

The primary importers in the region are Vietnam, Indonesia, Thailand and Malaysia, the report found.

Plastic was amongst the most common types of waste shipped globally between 2017 and 2022. It amounted to nearly 43 million tonnes during this time, a volume that is valued at more than US$21 billion.

“Plastic pollution is a global issue with severe environmental, health, social and economic consequences,” UNODC said. “It impacts livelihoods, food production systems and the health and wellbeing of millions of living beings.”

Pollutants of this type are renowned for contaminating land, freshwater, and ocean ecosystems. While microplastics, characterized as plastic fragments less than five millimeters in length, “infiltrate the food chain and the air we breathe.”

The sheer magnitude of the global waste trade, however, means that there are billions of dollars to be made under the table. This can be realized by a variety of actors, such as those who seek to make a little extra on the side in the waste management industry.

Highlighted in the report is the finding that the waste sector is highly vulnerable to corruption, as criminals exploit opportunities “to bribe officials to issue permits, falsify documents, overlook violations and obstruct inspections.”

Given the industry’s transnational nature, tracing imported illicit waste to its origins and enforcing sanctions against illegal shipping are cited as pervasive challenges.

Western European countries were identified as the exporters for a sizable amount of the reported illegal cases. Between 2017 and 2022, the EU contributed to nearly half of the world’s plastic waste trade.

Collectively, Southeast Asia imported more than 100 million tonnes of metal, paper and plastic waste during this timeframe, an amount valued at nearly $50 billion, the report found. And the quantities received are growing year after year.

Criminal groups involved in this lucrative waste trade were said to have exploited vulnerabilities and legal loopholes such as mislabelling their waste in order to get it passed customs. Hazardous waste was also found to be mixed in with household waste.

In Thailand, for example, certain types of waste do not need to even be declared. Waste traffickers can also pass off their cargo as “used goods” to bring in even more than regulations would otherwise permit.

And in Vietnam, non-recyclable single-use plastic waste has been mislabeled as recyclable plastic to smuggle it in, no questions asked, UNODC said.

For almost all countries, it is impossible for port authorities to inspect all shipping containers brought in; most can only process less than one in 10 of what they receive. Criminals exploit this vulnerability, betting that customs officers won’t even be able to verify their container’s contents before waving it through.

Waste trafficking is widely seen as a high-profit, low-risk crime wherein growing levels of garbage is shipped from high-income to low- and middle-income countries.

The European Commission estimated that illegal waste shipments sent from the EU to other countries from 2017 to 2022 generated 9.5 billion euro ($10.2 billion) and represent 15%–30% of the Union’s total waste trade.

And once the garbage arrives at its final destination, it often “ends up in illegal landfills and illegal storage sites or is burnt in the open, causing harm to the environment and human health,” the report said.

Reporting waste trafficking cases at the global level has proven challenging, with reports estimating that less than 50% of all illegal shipments and dumps are actually documented.

For cases where the culprits are caught, prison sentences were rarely handed down and the fines levied were cited as modest, the report found.

And while the true scope of the illicit waste trade is difficult to comprehend, UNODC cites it as one of the most significant crimes affecting the environment, one that impacts human health, our global environment, and economic development.

According to the World Bank Group, the world’s largest development bank, global waste output will increase by 70% from 2018 levels to 3.4 billion tonnes per year by 2050.