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Heavy machinery sorts through waste as it arrives at the Odayeri Recycling and Compost Waste Facility on March 12, 2018, in Istanbul.Chris McGrath/Getty Images

Adnan R. Khan is an independent writer and editor based in Amsterdam and Istanbul.

A new report published last month by the U.S.-based Center for Climate Integrity has made some of the most specific and explosive accusations against the petrochemical industry to date, accusing it of a “decades-long campaign of fraud and deception about the recyclability of plastics.” More than 99 per cent of plastics are produced from fossil fuels, the report notes, and the “vast majority” cannot be processed and remanufactured into new products. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency last reported America’s plastic recycling rate at 8.7 per cent, in 2018; in 2021, Bennington College’s Beyond Plastics project estimated that the rate has dipped even more, to no more than 6 per cent.

The dismal numbers add an alarming dimension to the growing evidence that plastic is not only toxic to the environment and human health, but difficult to dispose of, too. Recent studies have found that the leakage of dangerous chemicals into the environment when plastic is burned, put through the recycling process or buried in landfills is dangerous to people. And activists have warned for years that wealthy countries are dumping their plastic waste – much of it difficult to recycle, or unrecyclable – on countries in the Global South that lack the capacity to process it.

For the past year, I’ve been investigating this plastic waste trade in Europe and its effects on countries such as Turkey, where an ever-growing mountain of trash from the world’s wealthiest countries is piling up. The global trade is centred around the massive Dutch port in Rotterdam, the largest seaport in Europe. Since 2018, when China implemented a ban on the import of most plastic waste because of the poor quality of the waste it was receiving, Rotterdam’s port has become the transit point for millions of tonnes of the world’s trash – including exports from Canada.

The total numbers are unknown, but they are enormous. In 2023, official data from the United Nations Comtrade database showed the Netherlands imported nearly 800 kilotonnes of plastic waste, but experts, and the UN’s website itself, caution that this only the tip of the heap; most plastic waste exports either go unreported or are mislabelled as raw materials to avoid regulations that govern the global trade.

That trade is out of control. Inspectors at Rotterdam port have admitted publicly that the scale of shipments – in the range of 1.5 million shipping containers every year – makes oversight by physical inspections nearly impossible. The vast majority of compliance, as a result, is conducted administratively. But experts say it’s too easy to mislabel and misidentify hazardous and non-recyclable waste as a reusable commodity this way. “Then you can sell it as a secondary raw material and you fall into another regime,” Shanna Mehlbaum, a criminologist researching the illegal trade in plastic waste, told me. “It wouldn’t be traced at all in the same system, or leave a paper trail in the waste management system.”

Canada is supposed to abide by international rules governing the plastic waste trade, including the Basel Convention, which requires waste sent to non-OECD countries to be approved by the importer first, to guarantee it has the capacity to process the waste ethically. Canadian officials, responding to a Canadian Press investigation late last year, claimed the rules are being followed and that any waste approved for export to non-OECD countries is fully monitored for compliance. But it’s hard to imagine how Canadian officials would conduct such oversight. Every expert I spoke to in Europe told me that once waste enters another country, especially poorer countries in the Global South, it becomes unfeasible to track.

My own investigation in Turkey – an OECD member and a NATO ally – shows how easy it is for imported waste to get lost in the system, and with serious human consequences. There, imported trash comes into the country and then ends up on the open market, but that trash is often so contaminated and of such poor quality that the only way to profit from it is to disregard environmental regulations and labour laws.

The recycling companies that wind up taking it are often small, unregulated operations, many of which employ refugee labour. My reporting found that some refugees have died because of lax equipment standards and the punishing hours they’re forced to work, and that thousands more are consigned to a slow death as they breathe in and absorb chemicals under toxic working conditions.

And this is in Turkey, a putatively developed nation. The situation in countries such as Myanmar and Malaysia, to name just two places where Canadian trash has also turned up, are no doubt equally bad, if not worse.

Canadian officials deny this is happening on any large scale with trash from Canada. The vast majority of Canadian waste exports, they say, are labelled “sorted” and “recyclable,” and thus don’t require permitting for export. In 2023, close to 90 per cent of the 201.8 kilotonnes of plastic waste Canada exported went to the United States, accounting for 45 per cent of all plastic-waste imports coming into the U.S.

The problem is, we can’t really know what happens to it from there. According to the UN Comtrade database, the U.S. re-exported just three kilotonnes of plastic waste last year in total, which suggests that nearly all of the waste it imports is processed inside the country. But experts I spoke to were baffled by that low re-export number. The U.S. already produces vast oceans of its own plastic waste, more than enough to meet its domestic processing capacities on its own. Importing even more waste from other countries makes little sense. Ms. Mehlbaum says that the U.S.’s plastic waste imports, such as the hundreds of kilotonnes Canada sends, are potentially being relabelled as raw materials and then re-exported under a different category. Similar tactics are used in the Netherlands, she said, turning the global trade in waste into a “Wild West” filled with “cowboys who don’t care about regulations and just want to make money.”

The Center for Climate Integrity report has added another layer of futility to our recycling efforts. Even the plastic waste correctly labelled as recyclable is, in fact, not recyclable forever. “The reality is that plastics can only be recycled – or more accurately ‘downcycled’ – once, rarely twice,” the report points out. “For this reason, plastics have a linear rather than circular lifespan – when viable, recycling provides only a brief delay on their inevitable journey to landfills, incinerators, or the environment.”

In Europe, the push to ban the plastic waste trade entirely is gaining momentum. The ethos here is shifting: We created all this trash, Europeans increasingly admit, so we have to deal with it ourselves.

It’s time Canadians adopted a similar view.

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