A report published by the independent Swiss research group Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime, whose members include current and former law-enforcement officials, sheds new light on how plastic waste winds up in poorer countries that had agreed not to accept it. Building on a previous investigation by Interpol, the new report maps the web of brokers, middlemen, legitimate recycling companies and organized crime groups that move millions of tons of discarded plastic from the United States, Europe and Australia to countries in Southeast Asia and Africa.
Virginia Comolli, the report’s main author, says the illicit aspect of the trade is already a significant problem and on the rise. “Given the existing trends in terms of our addiction to plastic — and looking at future projections that it’s likely to increase — we are likely to also see an increase in these criminal activities,” Comolli added.
According to the report, data from the federal government suggests California is especially culpable. Plastic scrap generated in the state accounted for nearly a third of all U.S. exports to developing countries this year and is the main source of banned plastic exports to Malaysia.
Jan Dell, a chemical engineer and founder of the California-based environmental group The Last Beach Cleanup, said part of what’s driving this flood of exported plastic is that the state has very few recycling plants for its size. It’s also home to the Port of Los Angeles, the main U.S. entry point for goods from Asia. Once those shipping containers are emptied, they can be refilled with Californians’ plastic scrap and send back across the Pacific Ocean at relatively little cost.