Malaysia is the world's new garbage dump, after China closed its doors to U.S. plastic waste. The image shows plastic waste arriving at its main port. Photo: Mohd Rasfan/AFP/The Guardian
Read PART TWO of this investigation here: Thousands of tons of dirty plastic waste from the U.S. are washed in Ecuador.
Published on 2021-01-25
A data on exports of plastic waste from the United States caught the attention of international organizations in August 2020. In that month there was a record of exports to four countries and one of them was Ecuador. The Last Beach Cleanup, an independent initiative that seeks to reduce plastic pollution, raised the alert. It reported that 1.1 million kilos (1,100 tons) of this type of waste had been exported to Ecuador. That meant the shipment of seven containers per day or 210 containers in a single month.
The August figure exceeded the average number of containers with plastic waste arriving in the country from North America. In the last two years, 14,988 tons of this waste have arrived in Ecuador from that country. That is equal to 555 dump trucks full of waste.
But these more than 14,000 tons also mean the shipment of 2,820 shipping containers in two years, which in turn means 117 containers per month. Of those 2,820 containers, 1,552 arrived in 2020, a higher number than was recorded in 2019. Despite the pandemic, shipments of this type of waste have increased.
Since November 2019, Plan V - with the support of the Andean University Simon Bolivar and the Zero Garbage Ecuador Alliance - has been following the leads left by The Guardian's report titled 'Where does your plastic go? Global research reveals America's dirty secret'. This article mentions that the United States has shipped millions of tons of this material, mostly to developing countries with poor environmental regulations. Much of what the U.S. shipped was contaminated with food or soil, or was not recyclable and had to be disposed of again in the destination country. Ecuador was the only place in Latin America that was part of a list of 11 countries whose data was collected by the London media.
The new data and information obtained by this media reveal that large quantities of dirty plastic waste mixed with other products or other types of plastics entering Ecuador, especially those coming from the United States. For this investigation, 16 requests for interviews were sent to the importing companies, but only three accepted. These companies agreed that they do not bring garbage but raw material. This will be expanded in the second part of this investigation.
Meanwhile, thousands of tons of waste have entered the country without any control, although there are national regulations that regulate these movements since 2015. In addition, Ecuador is a subscriber to the Basel Convention, whose amendment to curb the global trade of plastic waste came into force last January 1.
Why should Ecuador be concerned about this issue? María Fernanda Soliz, academic and coordinator of the Zero Garbage Ecuador Alliance, affirmed that the importation of plastic waste is an "aberration". With this transboundary movement, she added, Ecuador becomes a backyard by receiving plastic waste from other countries that do not want it. She adds that this situation goes against the rights of Nature, established in the Constitution, and its basic principle which is to guarantee the regeneration of its vital cycles.
"They do it in the name of the circular economy discourse, trying to convince us that it is not about waste but about raw material, in a country where 96% of its waste is still buried". Soliz explains that of that 96% of waste, 25% corresponds to plastics, which could be recovered and reused, instead of turning to these imports. "In addition, they could be contaminated or contain hazardous substances because we have neither the technology nor the state institutions to exercise appropriate control processes".
The Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA) agrees with this criterion. Magdalena Donoso, its regional coordinator, said that there are increasing research and outreach efforts being made to reveal the true trends, numbers, current and potential impacts in relation to the transboundary trade of waste, particularly plastics in Latin America. Her fear is expressed in the question: "How much waste and in what conditions is arriving to Latin American countries, being the countries of our continent used as a backyard for the garbage that the richer countries do not want to manage?"
Packages of these plastic bottles travel around the world in shipping containers. Instead of managing their own garbage, the world superpowers send it to developing countries like Ecuador. Photo: Alianza Basura Cero Ecuador
Ecuador, the third country in Latin America that receives the most plastic waste
After crossing a Datasur database on Ecuadorian imports and the official records of foreign trade of the United States to which this portal had access, it was possible to analyze and expand this information. Datasur is a firm specialized in foreign trade and thanks to a journalistic alliance with Gestion Magazine it was possible to obtain records of these imports in Ecuador between 2014 and 2020.
The data reveals that Ecuador has brought plastic waste from 37 countries. But mainly from the United States, from where 36% of these materials consumed by Ecuadorian industries have arrived.
Last August, when it was reported about these large shipments leaving the United States, Ecuador appeared in The Last Beach Cleanup report along with Malaysia, Vietnam and Mexico. These countries received between 6,700 and 12,000 tons in a single month. Those numbers exceed the shipments to Ecuador, but U.S. environmentalists wondered why such a small country receives such large quantities of this waste. The answer lies in the fact that these materials are used by large recycling companies based in Ecuador. This topic will be expanded in the second part of this research.
These figures appear at a time when total exports of plastic waste from the United States have increased. Between January and August 2020, there was a 32% increase in these exports to countries with poor waste management, especially to Asia. The countries receiving the largest amount of plastic waste from North America are Malaysia, Turkey, Vietnam, Thailand and Indonesia.
Malaysia, for example, not only has poor waste management but also high rates of plastic pollution in the oceans. In August 2020, 75 containers per day or more than 2,000 containers per month with these materials arrived at its ports. Malaysia has been labeled the world's new plastic waste dumping ground after China banned imports of such waste from the United States. Malaysia, which almost doubles Ecuador's population, imported 12,000 tons in August 2020.
Ecuador is far from that figure. But there are similarities with Malaysia's imports. For example, the state of California is the main exporter of plastic waste to that Asian country. According to this international initiative, California leads exports of plastic waste to countries with poor waste management. Ecuador is among the thirteen countries, along with Mexico and El Salvador, that receive the most plastic waste from California.
As of August 2020, the latest figures available, Ecuador received 1.4 million kilos (1,400 tons) of plastic waste from California and 1.3 million kilos (1,300 tons) from Mississippi, according to the U.S. international free trade database, USA Trade Online. Mostly ethylene polymer waste was imported from California and Mississippi. This is one of the simplest polymers and therefore the most common plastic. This material is used to make everything from bottles, bags and pipes to yarn, cables and films.
These figures have made Ecuador the third largest recipient of plastic waste from the United States in Latin America, behind only Mexico and El Salvador. The movement of this waste has continued despite the pandemic. In the first eight months of 2020, only in April there were no exports to Ecuador. From May onwards, they began to grow and in only three months shipments exceeded the levels recorded before the pandemic: from 835,541 kilos in February to 1,059,766 kilos in August.
No authority oversees plastic waste arriving in Ecuador
Through heading 3915, companies based in Ecuador bring in "waste, scrap and plastic trimmings". Those denominations are broad to understand what arrives in the country. With the Datasur database, it was possible to analyze the import of 20,982 tons, from 2014 to 2020. Of these, 77% corresponded to the denomination of plastic waste, without any details. Later, in interviews with businessmen, it was learned that a large part of this waste is from irrigation pipes for agriculture in North American farms.
Far below is other waste such as PET bottles (2,893 tons), which are those used for carbonated beverages and water. Also arriving is high and low density polyethylene waste and, to a lesser extent, plastic sleeves, rolls and ground plastics, among others. According to customs records, 57% of these imports arrived as used material. But there is no way of knowing in what state they arrived (dirty or mixed) or if they are suitable for recycling.
The competent authorities do not know what is entering Ecuador under heading 3915 and its subheadings. The only information they have corresponds to data from the National Customs Service (SENAE) on the amounts and tons imported under the designations of plastic waste. The Ministry of Environment, for example, could not specify whether materials considered as "other plastic waste" (which are mixed with each other or with other waste are contaminated) or "hazardous plastics" are arriving. Yadira Pilco, from the Directorate of Chemical Substances, Hazardous and Non-Hazardous Waste and Residues of this Ministry said: "as authorities we cannot be checking the shipment with batches of waste, that is why it is the responsibility of the person who brings these materials".
The Ministry of Environment stated that technologies such as portable X-ray fluorescence equipment will be necessary to detect some of the substances of concern such as persistent organic compounds.
In 2018, a colossal 531,461 tons of plastic went to Ecuador's landfills, equivalent to the weight of more than 350,000 medium-sized vehicles. Photo: EFE
THE COMPETENT AUTHORITIES DO NOT KNOW WHAT IS ENTERING ECUADOR UNDER HEADING 3915 AND ITS SUBHEADINGS. THEY ONLY HAVE INFORMATION ON THE AMOUNTS AND TONS IMPORTED UNDER THE DESIGNATIONS OF PLASTIC WASTE.
Plan V consulted SENAE about what controls and supervision they are doing in this regard. They only limited themselves to say that, if ever a type of import is legally prohibited, Customs will comply with the controls.
In Ecuador, the entry of plastic waste is not prohibited, but it must be regulated. Since 2015 there are regulations such as agreement 061 that controls all transboundary movement of hazardous and special waste. This was mentioned by the official Yadira Pilco. The same happens with the Organic Environmental Code, in force since 2018. Its Article 227 and its regulations prohibit the introduction or importation into the country of waste and residues. The law establishes that non-hazardous and special waste may only enter the country when the purpose is only for utilization and to meet domestic demand. In other words, any transboundary movement of waste must be authorized by the Environment Ministry. However, this ministry has only registered three requests from companies.
Also, this issue is in the Law for the Reduction of Single-Use Plastics, approved in November 2020. Only if it is proven that there is a shortage of these materials in the country, a temporary dispensation for importation will be granted, while the shortage lasts. The Ministry of Environment has announced that the specifications for this procedure will be included in the Regulations of this law.
But in addition to all these domestic regulations, Ecuador is a signatory to the Basel Convention and its Amendment on plastics, which adds to the agreement the control of mixed, dirty and halogenated plastic waste (which generates toxic emissions during incineration). In other words, the so-called 'non-hazardous' plastics. This amendment came into force on January 1, 2021.
This is what the Inga landfill looked like in June 2020. Quito buries 2,200 tons of organic and plastic waste there every day, and its infrastructure is about to collapse. A few kilometers away, the recycling company Productos Paraíso imports plastic waste from the United States. Photo: PlanV
This contrasts with the position of SENAE and the Ministry of Production. The former maintains that there are no restrictions or prohibitions for the importation of goods of subheading 3915. They said that the only import prohibition of the referred goods is when they originate from North Korea. He also mentioned that, according to the classification by use or economic destination established by the Central Bank, the subheadings of chapter 3915 are classified as raw material. Production also considers this type of imports as raw material and argues that this is framed under the principles of the Circular Economy, whose national policy is still being developed.
One limitation of the database was the lack of information from the suppliers of these wastes to the country of destination. However, some shipments record what in foreign trade is called "shipper", which can be the company that exports or the company that only handles the shipment.
With this exception, in the United States, four companies appear as "shippers" of waste destined for Ecuador. One of them is TRADEPRO INC. which is an importer, exporter and supplier of plastic raw materials based in Miami. This firm, for example, is the importer of these wastes for the Ecuadorian companies Productos Paraíso, Promaplast, Imagor, Nutec, among others.
ECUADOR IS A SIGNATORY TO THE BASEL CONVENTION AND ITS AMENDMENT ON PLASTICS, WHICH ADDS TO THE AGREEMENT THE CONTROL OF MIXED, DIRTY AND HALOGENATED PLASTIC WASTE.
The government slips with its figures
Plan V initiated this investigation at the end of 2019. At that time it required figures on plastic waste imports from the competent authorities. But a year later, when updating the data, inconsistencies appeared.
In 2019, the Ministry of Production - quoting SENAE - sent, via email, that imports of plastic waste, scrap and trimmings amounted to US$11.53 million and 65,783.40 tons, in the period between 2016 and July 2019. While the figures delivered in 2020 by SENAE speak of the import of 37,579 tons at a cost of USD 14.3 million. That implies a decrease of more than 28,000 tons.
In the information requested in 2019 and which came through the Ministry of Production, which in turn cited SENAE figures, the number of tons imported annually ranged between 16,000 and 20,000 tons. But in 2020, the SENAE data dropped to 2,000 and 11,000 tons.
In a request for clarification of the figures, SENAE confirmed the data provided. Production, on the other hand, could not give a clear answer. This ministry, by e-mail, mentioned that between SENAE and Central Bank figures there are usually differences due to substitutive declarations or well made declarations that changed due to errors by customs agents or due to changes in subheadings. When Production was asked again if what they meant was that the source of their figures was the Central Bank, they no longer answered the email. A call was received from the staff of the Communication area, who assured that they were looking for the origin of this information. But so far there is no answer to justify the origin of this data.
In its October 2020 response, SENAE detailed that the 37,579 tons of plastic waste were imported under two customs regimes: for consumption and for temporary admission and improvement, called Regime 21. The latter "is a customs regime through which goods can be introduced into Ecuadorian territory, to be subjected to a process of improvement". That is, after an industrial process they are exported again.
In both 2019 and 2020, strong restrictions on access to official information on these tariff items were identified. SENAE practically blocked any possibility of accessing commercial information of the companies, when such information should be public. In 2020, the Ministry of Production had already stopped providing this type of information.
María Esther Briz, from the organization Mingas por el Mar, affirms that even the countries of Southeast Asia - which are now the main destination of the world's garbage - are already working on regulations and prohibitions to avoid these practices. The activist adds that one of the most worrying aspects is precisely the lack of knowledge about this issue, since it is off the radar of both authorities and citizens.
Therefore, says Briz, it is important to think about the threat that this means for countries like Ecuador, where information regarding this issue is almost nonexistent. "It is incomprehensible that the same public agency provides such disparate data from one year to the next. What is going on there? Are the data not being taken well or is something being hidden? We have to be vigilant and demand transparency".
Translated by Manuel Novik