Argentina Has Signed Up to Become the World's Dumping Ground

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A new decree has opened the door to global waste exports – and rampant pollution.

Argentina has signed up to become the world's unofficial landfill site, with president Mauricio Macri approving a decree that would allow for the import of low-value and potentially toxic plastic scraps. Argentina has signed the Basel Convention, along with 180 countries (excluding the U.S.), which oversees waste exports and has clear definitions of what can be 'recovered' through recycling efforts and what must be disposed of through incineration; but this new Decree 591 significantly limits the list of items to be incinerated, thus "allowing many wastes destined for recycling or incineration to escape control."

It's an attempt to get around a recent amendment to the Basel Convention, proposed by Norway, which states that developed nations cannot "export low-quality plastic waste to developing nations without getting their explicit consent and ensuring the waste can be appropriately handled" (via the Guardian). This prevents developed nations from taking advantage of less-well-regulated countries and using them as dumping grounds, while simultaneously ensuring that "even abstaining countries, such as the U.S., follow the Basel convention rules when sending plastic waste to poorer countries."

Macri's move has infuriated many people, from the global waste trade watchdog Basel Action Network, which says the decree is illegal and must be repealed, to environmental activists who are concerned about the health problems linked to increased incineration in Argentina, to the nation's waste pickers themselves, who told Guardian reporters, "Don't we have enough waste here?"

Argentina likely wants to replace China as the go-to destination for difficult-to-recycle waste. Ever since China closed its doors to international waste imports in January 2018, recyclers have been struggling to find a place to send their trash. Shipments moved to Vietnam, Thailand, and Malaysia, but after those countries tightened regulations, they've shown up in Ghana, Ethiopia, Senegal, Laos, and Cambodia.

And Argentina will be next, but it's such an unfortunate and harmful decision. As Jim Puckett, executive director of the Basel Action Network, said, "They’re willing to become a sacrificial country where the rest of the world could send their waste and they could profit from it."

It's not as if Argentina already has a good handle on its own waste, let alone that of the rest of the world's. Cecilia Allen, an advocate with Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives in Buenos Aires, told the Guardian that any mixed plastics received by Argentina are unlikely to be recycled.

"We have a lot of waste here and we are not reducing, we are not recycling, we are not composting. And it makes no sense for us to open the door for more to come."

Again, I restate the line I always have – that countries need to start dealing with their own trash, not outsourcing it. Only when there's nowhere else for waste to go will governments enact policies that enforce packaging redesigns and slash plastic generation at its source. Until then, this problem's not going away.