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New Report Shows How Illicit Plastic Gets Sold, Shipped, And Dumped Around The World

by Rudy Sanchez on 11/10/2021 | 3 Minute Read

Transnational organized crime organizations aren’t just trading in things like cocaine and counterfeit Rolexes—some turn to the illicit plastic trade.

According to a recent report by Global Initiative, an organization devoted to identifying and fighting transnational corruption, illicit plastic is making its way from wealthier regions like North America and Europe into less-economically-developed areas such as Southeast Asia and Africa through shady intermediaries.

The study, Plastic for Profit, provides a cursory insight into the underground world of moving plastic around the world that no one wants. The complex nature of international shipping means that there are many ways that criminals can move illicit recycled plastic, from using fraudulent documentation and hiding under layers of legal shell companies to exploiting the lack of resources and education of authorities in developing nations.

Editorial photograph

China’s National Sword policy, which barred the importation of many types of material, including popular plastics polystyrene (PS), polyvinyl chloride (PVC), polyethylene terephthalate (PET), low-density polyethylene (LDPE), and high-density polyethylene (HDPE), upended the recycling trade in just one year. Global Initiative’s report points to the domino effect China’s tightening of plastic intake had on international trade; from 2017 to 2018, China went from receiving over 85% of the EU’s plastic, as well as half of the US’s supply down to 40% and 20% respectively. Much of that plastic now goes to nations such as Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines, despite not having adequate facilities to process this material or the law enforcement resources to ensure this waste gets appropriately managed. These and other internal factors have contributed towards a boom in the illegal plastic trade and dumping in these countries.

Even when law enforcement officials identify illegal and hazardous recycled plastics shipments, repatriation isn’t always straightforward. Shipments often go through several ports to obfuscate their true origin, while bribes and fraud facilitate the trafficking of illegal plastics.

The lynchpin to the illegal plastic trade are brokers, intermediaries that take recycled plastic from legitimate and unsuspecting firms and shepherd it along the various maritime and land routes. Often, they come from exporting countries such as the UK and US; they have connections and knowledge to circumvent safeguards against the trafficking of illegal plastic in Turkey, Vietnam, and India. These brokers, for example, know that customs officials in, say, Zambia, where the researchers interviewed border agents, were untrained in distinguishing legal and illegal plastics. These go-betweens even openly advertise on the professional social networking site LinkedIn, taking advantage of a lack of interest or capability in pursuing this crime by the authorities.

The Global Initiatives report makes suggestions to combat the illegal plastics trade, with task forces or networked law enforcement and cooperation with and support of those in the private sector that can best identify red flags. The report also finds that the digitalization of waste management and shipping would go a long way in patching the exploits used by brokers and organized crime. Finally, researchers suggest working with non-governmental actors like activists and investigative journalists that have the power to influence public debate and reprioritize the issue.

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