US Needs to Stop Using Third World as Dumping Ground

US Needs to Stop Using Third World as Dumping Ground

As soon as I walked out the doors of Jinnah International Airport in Karachi, Pakistan, the smell was unmistakably familiar -- a mixture of rotting garbage, body odor, and masalas from nearby food vendors hanging thickly in the air on the hot summer night.

It had been nearly 15 years since my last trip to Pakistan: the country of my ancestors, the land my parents left behind as immigrants in the 1960s, a fledgling Islamic state that emerged trepidatiously from a ravaged, divided, post-colonial India in 1947.

I had been hoping -- praying, even -- that in this momentous 75th year of the country’s existence, the roads would be less littered, the air would be cleaner, food safer to eat, tap water less hazardous to drink, and the stench of garbage throughout the city would be less pungent than what I remembered.

But that wasn’t the case.

In the year marking the 30th anniversary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UFCCC), which has a goal to stabilize greenhouse gas emissions, nowhere is the global climate crisis felt more intensely than in the world’s most impoverished countries. The latest floods, which have killed more than 1,300 and displaced an estimated 33 million, have sparked Pakistan's Federal Minister for Climate Change Sherry Rehman to send out repeated requests for international aid. In a video posted on Twitter, she said Pakistan is experiencing a "serious climate catastrophe, one of the hardest in the decade."

"No city is structured or that climate resilient that it can cope with this amount of water in such a short time," she said.

PBS: Pakistan, UN seek international aid amid catastrophic flooding that displaced millions, August 30, 2022.

New York Times, November 12, 2021.

Source: Global Carbon Project·

Note: The rich, developed countries group is based on the United Nations’ Annex II definition. International transport is not counted as part of either group’s total emissions. The data reflects territory-based carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels and cement, but does not include land-use and forestry. The graphic shows emissions from countries and territories.

CNN, November 3, 2021.

Robin Hood: "This is Loss and Damage | Who Pays" narrated by Mark Strong, September 23, 2021.

In a UN Environment Programme press release earlier this year, the special assistant to Pakistan’s prime minister on climate change Malik Amin Aslam said that every year the country climbs the ladder of climate vulnerability, even though it contributes less than one percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. In 2020, Pakistan was ranked the eighth poorest country in Asia, according to the World Bank. And the nefarious actions of the US and other rich countries have magnified the impact of the disaster on struggling Pakistani communities.

The nonprofit Basel Action Network reports violations of a UN agreement called the Basel Convention (which started in 1989 with the intent to regulate the international plastic waste trade) have been “rampant” over the past year.

The Basel, Rotterdam and Stockholm Conventions: Addressing plastic pollution under the Basel Convention, February 17, 2022.

The Story of Stuff Project: The Story of Plastic, April 21, 2021.

USA Today: Recycling | What really happens to recyclable waste in the US, April 22, 2022.

Earlier this year, the UN Environment Assembly took an important initial step towards reducing plastic waste, unanimously voting to develop yet another treaty to end plastic pollution, a long-term process to rally the world through a new legal framework. Global leaders have until 2024 to help shape the treaty, deciding which elements will be legally binding and how it will be financed.

Despite new rules meant to clamp down on countries that ship their plastic refuse abroad, the US, Canada, and European Union offloaded hundreds of millions of tons of plastic to other countries. In true NIMBY style (meaning “not in my backyard”), many lawmakers have decided to allow the problem to fall on Brown and Black countries instead of blaming US mass consumption and wastefulness.

Contrary to popular belief, the US is the world’s largest producer of plastic waste and one of only a handful of countries that have shown such blatant disrespect for international law by not ratifying the Basel Convention. Essentially, US policymakers have agreed for decades to attempt to keep American beaches pristine and landfills less toxic by dumping garbage halfway around the world.

UNEP: Global Plastic Pollution Agreement | A historic moment, March 2, 2022.

Pattrn: US Plastic Waste Report, December 8, 2021.

The Fifth Estate: Canadian recycling companies caught shipping illegal trash overseas, April 20, 2022.

In a tweet from December 4, 2018, then-President Donald Trump claimed: “I want clean air and clean water and have been making great strides in improving America’s environment. But American taxpayers -- and American workers -- shouldn’t pay to clean up other countries’ pollution.”

It turns out that much of the plastic waste collected in the US under the guise of recycling actually ends up in overseas landfills and oceans. A report released early this year by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) found only 9% of the 353 million tons of plastic produced in 2019 was recycled into new material -- the rest was either burned, put in landfills, or "mismanaged."

Plastic waste shipped to countries with poor waste management systems, such as Pakistan, can cause long-lasting damage to people and the environment. Non-recycled plastic often ends up being burned, releasing hazardous chemicals that poison the food chain. Excess plastic may be dumped into uncontrolled waste sites or polluted directly into the environment, leading to contaminated water sources and damaged ecosystems.

A 2021 report by the independent Swiss research group Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime, whose members include current and former law-enforcement officials, outlines how legitimate recycling companies and waste brokers have engaged in fraud. Some conceal shipments of banned plastic products among other goods, illegally dumping them and paying bribes to get past inspectors. Meanwhile, exporters have been found mislabelling their plastic scrap cargo to disguise it from customs officers, so it falsely appears to comply with international agreements. Often, these exporters hide behind multiple shell companies and use complex shipping routes, making it difficult for receiving countries to trace the waste to its origin and send it back.

PBS: How the Plastics Industry Used Recycling to Fend Off Bans, March 31, 2021.

TRT World Now: 20 companies responsible for most single-use plastic waste, May 18, 2021.

DW: Why Big Oil is betting on plastic, January 1, 2021.

To get to the root of this massive global problem, nations must face up to powerful fossil fuel and plastic industries and broker a binding, international agreement to rein in plastic pollution and production.

In the interim, America needs to ratify the Basel Convention immediately. This action would criminalize the illegal trading of low-quality plastics and even (somewhat ironically) facilitate legitimate trading of high-quality, recyclable plastics (with the consent of the receiving party).

At a higher level, this will help position America as a global leader in environmental protection and human rights during this period of dire, worldwide climate crises.

Teemill: TED talk | How to design the circular economy, April 1, 2022.

CNBC: How Singapore fixed its big trash problem, April 26, 2021.

Every time I’ve visited Pakistan, my loved ones greet me with trepidatious enthusiasm, concerned that the polluted environment of my native country will have a negative and potentially severe impact on my health.

In the heat of Pakistani summers, when temperatures can stay above 90 degrees Fahrenheit for weeks on end, I’ve received stern warnings to not -- at any cost -- consume even one drop of water that hasn’t been thoroughly boiled or treated. But when I return to the US, I am reminded that this country must lead more effectively to combat the pollution it is responsible for spreading around the world. Our planet and our humanity depend on it.