Echoes of colonialism in the global waste ‘trade’

“The onus to change should not be on the countries importing the waste; it should be on the UK Government.” Ria Patel, External Relations Officer for Greens of Colour, outlines the vicious cycle of waste export from developed to developing countries, and how this echoes the narrative of colonialism. 

Plastic beach waste
Ria Patel

On Wednesday 27 January, Boris Johnson responded to Caroline Lucas during PMQs stating the Tories would ban the practise of shipping plastic waste to non-OECD countries, as stated in their manifesto. However, their manifesto was published in 2019, and still no change has been taken, in spite of public support. Just recently, nine-year-old Lizzie A. started a petition to stop the UK from exporting its plastic waste, which has over 90,000 signatures. An additional concern is post-Brexit regulations on exporting waste being less rigorous than those of the EU.

Currently, the global waste trade allows for waste produced in Western countries to be exported to countries in the Global South for them to deal with, and dispose of. This feeds into a vicious cycle; developing countries are treated as the dumping ground for developed countries, and then are blamed for their poor management of waste and carbon emissions. 

In 2018, China put restrictions in place, due to concerns over contamination and pollution, so that now they only import 99.5 per cent pure plastic. These restrictions may have led to the UK exporting less waste to China, but it did not dampen our Government’s need to export waste. Instead of taking responsibility for our waste, the UK Government exported over 7,000 tonnes of waste in September 2020 alone to non-OECD countries, like Malaysia, Turkey and indonesia. The onus to change should not be on the countries importing the waste; it should be on the UK Government, and other Western countries. 

Hazardous waste being shipped to developing countries is a particular cause for concern. It means people who do not produce the waste are left to deal with the negative effects from the waste, in terms of health and environment. The pollutants in the hazardous waste, microplastics and metal hyperaccumulation, have consistently shown a decrease in biodiversity. Workers dealing with the waste, with typical wages being $2-$4 a day, are often not protected by gear from the toxic chemicals, leaving them at harm of bone disease, neurotoxicity, and other diseases. Not only this, but local communities are affected, with toxic waste chemicals leaking into water systems, causing health concerns through unsafe drinking water. Of those affected, people of colour and women are particularly at risk.

We need to question why our Government thinks it is okay to put others at harm for its benefit. We should not be asking poorer countries to deal with our problems. This notion echoes the narrative of colonialism. With Western countries holding economic power over developing countries, they can afford the luxury of exporting trash, with little care for what happens when they pass on the waste. Once again, Western countries are dominating countries, through access to land, to achieve their own goals, and through this exportation of literal rubbish, developing countries are seen as less than Western countries. 

The time for excuses is over. Our consumerist culture needs to change, but more importantly so do our policies and systems. We export waste as it is cost-effective. The fact that it is cheaper to fly our waste halfway across the globe instead of taking ownership of it ourselves is testament to the failure of our systems. We need an overhaul of our current recycling and waste disposal system in favour of a more effective method. There are Western countries, like Germany and Finland, that have found better ways of waste management, and it’s time the UK follows suit.

Through this ‘trade’, Western countries gain more power and economic dominance over these countries. The current global waste trade allows for Western countries to capitalise on poorer countries, and is a stark effect of neoliberalism. Neoliberalism facilitates the global waste trade. The free market is not truly free. Just because we cannot see the consequences, it does not mean that they do not exist. Our Government must abandon its colonial mindset and do better. After all, if a nine-year-old can see the issues with our current system, surely the Government can.