First published at Tempest.
In the late 1970s, residents of the working-class neighborhood of Love Canal, New York experienced a number of mysterious illnesses. In addition to abnormally high rates of birth defects and miscarriages, inhabitants were afflicted with epilepsy, asthma, migraines, and nephrosis.
Investigations revealed that in 1942, the Hooker Chemical Company began using part of the canal as a chemical waste dump. Eleven years later, the company capped the 16-acre hazardous waste landfill and sold the property to the Niagara Falls School Board, leaving approximately 21,000 tons of chemicals in the area. Consecutive wet winters in the late 1970s raised the water table, causing the chemicals to leach into neighborhood basements, yards, and playgrounds.
Disasters like those in upstate New York and elsewhere greatly increased the cost of waste disposal in industrialized countries. Yet rather than ban or even reduce such wastes, producing nations began exporting them to developing countries in debt and in need of income. Over the past fifty years, western nations have sent their (mostly petroleum-based plastic) waste to Africa, the South Pacific, Latin America, the Caribbean, East and Southeast Asia, Eastern Europe, and the Middle East. A pattern has emerged in which popular pressures eventually force governments to reduce or eliminate the importation of foreign waste. Exporters respond by seeking new sites to cheaply offload ever-increasing mountains of plastic, paper, and other materials.
Since 2016, Turkey has been the primary recipient of Europe’s waste. A 2021 investigation by Greenpeace revealed how European countries, led by the UK, Germany, Belgium, and the Netherlands, have shipped millions of tons of waste to Turkey every year while Turkey’s capacity to recycle its own trash remained largely unchanged. In addition to the Turkish state’s inability to safely dispose of legally imported waste, illegally dumped garbage is burned or left in farmlands, near water bodies, or in open areas.
Rather than being phased out, the plastics industry continues to grow while the vast majority of waste goes unrecycled. International agreements, regional political alliances, and domestic bans may mitigate some of the worst impacts of the waste export industry. Ultimately, however, eliminating neocolonial trash dumping will require more radical solutions.
The cost of dumping hazardous waste in U.S. landfills was approximately $15 per ton in 1980. Thanks to catastrophes like Love Canal, by the end of the decade the price had skyrocketed to $250. In Africa, by contrast, waste could be unloaded for as little as $2.50 per ton, leading mainstream economists to see major benefits in the global waste trade. In a confidential memo from 1991, World Bank chief economist Lawrence Summers claimed that “countries in Africa are vastly UNDER-polluted,” and that the Bank should encourage “more migration of the dirty industries to the LDCs [least developed countries].”
Africans thought differently, and popular protests quickly forced producers to look elsewhere to offload their waste. Predictably, the global movement of waste resulted in hundreds, if not thousands, of toxic dumping “incidents.” In 1986, for example, a garbage barge dumped 14,000 tons of incinerator ash from Philadelphia on a Haitian beach after circling the oceans in search of a location to dump its toxic cargo. Two years later leaking drums from two Italian companies released carcinogenic Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and asbestos fibers into Koko, Nigeria. Corroded and leaking barrels (or no barrels at all) allowed toxic waste to leach into soils and water systems in sites throughout the world, a process made easier in hot and humid tropical countries.
Most toxic waste dumping incidents occurred after the 1989 Basel Convention, a UN-led agreement that aimed to establish a global regulatory framework for waste management. A fundamental problem with the convention was that waste producers could simply refuse to ratify any attempt to ban the international trade entirely, as was desired by alliances in Africa, the South Pacific, and the Caribbean. Basel’s regulations, which took effect in 1992, were riddled with weak mechanisms of enforcement, vague definitions of “hazardous waste” and “environmentally sound,” and numerous other loopholes. One common way to circumvent regulations was simply to label waste “recycling,” though exporters were well-aware their waste would end up in landfills or bodies of water.
In the 1990s waste trade bans were implemented in parts of Africa, Central America, and the Mediterranean despite severe opposition from the world’s biggest producers—the U.S., UK, Germany, Japan, Australia, and Canada. Producers pivoted to Asia, and by the turn of the twenty-first century, China was the main importer of Western waste. In 2017, China imported seven million tons of plastic rubbish from Europe, the U.S., and Japan, as well as twenty-seven million tons of waste paper.
The arrival of unrecyclable soiled and contaminated materials that overwhelmed processing facilities pushed the Chinese government to act. At the beginning of 2018, a new “National Sword” policy banned the importation of most plastics and other materials to China. As a result, by early 2019 the country’s plastic imports had plummeted 99 percent, with the importation of mixed paper dropping by a third.
While good news for the environment and the people living in China, trash piled up in parts of the wealthy West and exporting nations again scoured the globe for new buyers. Recyclers in Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam, and Malaysia initially accepted much of the waste formerly destined for China, but were quickly overwhelmed by the sheer volume of foreign trash arriving at their processors. In July 2018, Thailand announced it would ban all foreign plastic waste in 2021; Vietnam plans to follow suit in 2025.
In a grotesque irony (and unsurprising display of stupidity), when Donald Trump signed legislation in 2018 renewing the federal marine debris program, he attacked Asia for fouling the world’s oceans. In the same year that the U.S. exported 1.07 million tons of plastic—most of it sent to Asian countries with weak waste management systems—Trump whined that it was “very unfair” that the U.S. had to remove waste floating across the Pacific to the West Coast. Malaysia’s environment minister Yeo Bee Yin responded: “I hate seeing my country as the dumpsite for the developed world.” No country, she stated, “should be the dumping site for the developed world.”
Though a signatory to the Basel Convention, in the 1980s and 1990s a post-coup and neoliberalizing Turkish state displayed little interest in the environment. In the early 2000s, however, with the new Justice and Development Party (AKP) government aiming to join the European Union, the state worked to harmonize its policies with Europe’s Waste Framework Directive. This resulted in the 2016 “National Action Plan for Waste Management 2023,” which sought to provide for the disposal of 35 percent of Turkey’s waste through recycling and 65 percent through regular storage by 2023.
According to an official statement in late 2021 (after the Greenpeace report and duly reported by pro-government press), Turkey’s recycling rate rose from 13 percent in 2010 to 22.4 percent. This is still considerably shy of the objectives set out in the National Action Plan, and there is good reason to doubt government figures. Despite efforts to greenwash its public image, the AKP government is notoriously dismissive of ecological concerns and hostile to environmental activists and journalists. The build-up of marine mucilage (colloquially known as “sea snot”)–mucus and other microorganisms resulting from pollution and climate change in the Marmara Sea–constituted another, more visible environmental scandal for the Turkish government in 2021. In terms of waste management, Greenpeace estimates a recycling rate in Turkey as low as 12 percent–about the same as that of a decade ago.
Turkey’s dramatic economic growth in the early twenty-first century was rooted in carbon-intensive and state-subsidized sectors like fossil fuels, mining, and construction. Official ambitions for development—aided by a nationalist ideology of revived Turkish power—often overshadowed concerns over environmental impacts. Turkey was the last G20 nation to ratify the Paris Climate Agreement (in October 2021)—which it approved in exchange for being classified as a developing rather than developed nation, leaving it with fewer responsibilities and more time to reduce emissions.
Not long after the publication of the ambitious National Action Plan in 2016, Turkey became the world’s primary destination for European waste. Although it first began importing waste in 2004, Turkey’s explosive rise after 2017 was a direct result of China’s National Sword policy. By 2020, nearly a quarter of the waste exported by EU countries—approximately 31.7 million tons—was now being sent to Turkey. This was twenty times more than the amount sent in 2016, totaling 241 truckloads of plastic waste sent to the country on a daily basis. In the same year, the U.K. sent 200,000 tons, or 30 shipping containers, of plastic packaging waste to Turkey every day.
Greenpeace investigators examined five waste dumping sites in Adana, a province on the southern Mediterranean coast. Soil samples revealed levels of carcinogenic dioxin-furans 400,000 times higher than in uncontaminated soil; the number of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) was 30,000 times higher. Investigators also found 18 different types of metals, metalloids, and Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) in the samples. The toxic chemicals are a result of the illegal burning of plastic waste and mix into the soil, water, air, and the food chain. The Adana dumpsites, it should be noted, are located in important agricultural, livestock, and irrigation areas.
Less than two weeks after the release of the Greenpeace report, in late May of 2021, the Turkish government announced it would end imports of polyethylene. In contrast to other countries, where popular pressure typically moved governments to act, it seemed the Greenpeace report forced the AKP’s hand. In early July, however, the state reversed the ban after the intervention of PAGEV, a Turkish plastics industry association. The Ministry of Commerce announced that polyethylene was moved back into the category of “controlled” rather than banned imports.
One year after the investigation, foreign waste continued to plague Adana. Recycling plants had failed to clean the eighteen areas where plastic waste had been found despite promises to do so. The U.K., meanwhile, continues to illegally dump thousands of tons of waste in Turkey while company executives attack journalists for investigating whether the waste is being properly disposed of. Unfortunately, in the midst of a continuing economic crisis and national elections slated for the summer of 2023, the environment and waste scandal have failed to register as key concerns for the Turkish opposition.
Record-breaking temperatures, fires, floods, and catastrophic droughts across much of the world in 2022 have shown the undeniable reality of the climate emergency. While global warming constitutes the primary threat to the planet, the waste that is an inevitable byproduct of capitalist production should not be overlooked. A recent OECD report estimates that the amount of plastic waste produced globally will triple by 2060, with around half ending up in landfills and less than a fifth recycled.
Currently, about 44 million tons of plastic leak into the environment every year, with plastics in the world’s lakes, rivers, and oceans expected to triple along with expanded production. In addition to the menace of plastic is the growing mountains of e-waste (discarded electronic equipment like phones, tablets, and computers), the exportation of which brings dangerous chemicals like lead, mercury, and flame retardants to poor communities in the developing world.
There are some glimmers of hope. Amendments to the Basel Convention in 2019 more clearly define plastic wastes and impose trade restrictions on non-party members. The prohibition against parties trading certain plastic wastes and scraps with non-parties will, it is hoped, stop producers like the U.S. (a non-party) from sending waste to signatories like Mexico and Canada. And in March of 2022, representatives of 175 nations endorsed a UN Environment Assembly resolution in Nairobi to end plastic pollution by international agreement by 2024.
Despite justified accusations of NIMBY-ism against exporting countries, people in the industrialized West are not indifferent to the pernicious effects of plastic production and waste dumping. A recent YouGov poll shows that 86 percent of the British public is concerned about the amount of plastic waste produced in the U.K., and 81 percent think the government should do more to deal with the issue. A strong majority—62 percent—support the government stopping waste exports to other countries. A February 2022 poll from the ocean advocacy organization Oceana revealed that 81 percent of U.S. voters support local and national policies that would reduce the use of single-use plastics, with 78 percent agreeing that the U.S. has a responsibility to reduce its contribution to the global plastic problem.
Ultimately, however, the perpetual drive for profits and growth that fuels capitalism must be addressed if fundamental change is to occur. Like the fossil fuel lobby, the plastics industry has in recent years shoveled enormous amounts of money into government coffers in the U.S. and Europe to combat popular efforts to reduce plastic use. Overcoming corporate power and its inevitably destructive effects will require coordinated activism at local, national, and international levels. It will also require no less than the democratization of our economies—and therefore the appropriation of major industries and their nationalization in the interests of people and the planet.
Daniel Johnson teaches in the Department of American Culture and Literature at Bilkent University. He is the author of Making the Early Modern Metropolis: Culture and Power in Pre-Revolutionary Philadelphia (University of Virginia, 2022).