India Follows China's Lead, Bans Plastic Waste Imports

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CC BY 2.0. Juan Antonio Segal – Street view in Varanasi, India

Another door has closed for Western nations hoping to dump their trash overseas. Maybe it's time for another model?

It has been just over a year since China banned imports of foreign plastic waste, and now India has followed in its footsteps. Effective March 1, all imports of foreign solid plastic waste and scrap have been banned. The move is meant to "close the gap between waste generation and recycling capacity," and to help keep the country on track for its goal to phase out all single-use plastics by 2020. India produces nearly 26,000 tons of plastic waste daily and an estimated 40 percent of that remains uncollected, due to inadequate recycling facilities, so it makes sense that the country hardly needs more inputs.

There were already some prohibitions in place, limiting plastic imports to companies in Special Economic Zones (SEZs), while allowing certain businesses to procure resources from abroad. But as the Economic Times reported, "The provision of partial ban was misused by many companies on the pretext of being in an SEZ."

India had begun taking in greater quantities of plastic following China's ban, but now that will shift to other, less regulated countries in southeast Asia, including Thailand, Vietnam, and Malaysia. All of these have experienced a drastic increase in plastics imports in the past year. The Independent said that Malaysia is now receiving three times the trash it used to, Vietnam's imports have increased by 50 percent, and the amount of Thailand has gone up fifty-fold.

"After China's announcement that it would no longer accept 'foreign garbage', environment secretary Michael Gove said the UK had to 'stop offshoring our dirt' and deal with its plastic waste at home. But at the time, India was mentioned as one destination for plastic rubbish as a 'short term' alternative destination to China."

Clearly that short-term solution has come to an end – and the Western nations that are accustomed to shipping their waste to distant corners of the Earth appear no closer to managing the detritus of their own lives. For the time being Malaysia, Vietnam, and Thailand appear content to continue receiving it (although that stance is mostly official, and being challenged by enraged citizens whose health and wellbeing are being affected by the increased pollution), but that's not going to last.

I maintain that the United States, Canada, and Europe will not rethink their packaging and consumption styles until "there is no away," nowhere to send trash to be out of sight and out of mind. Once we are forced to live with our trash and find innovative ways to reuse and recycle it, this absurdly unsustainable cycle of using and dumping on more loosely-regulated nations will come to an end.