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United Nations Environment Programme
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Newsletter and Technical Publications
<Municipal Solid Waste Management>

Sound Practices
Waste reduction

1.2.5 International trading of recyclables

Cities and countries should not ignore the growing international trade in recyclables. This trend is both an opportunity for income generation and a potential threat to traditional recycling activities. The accompanying box discusses some of these issues.

 

Importing and exporting recyclables: environmental and economic issues

A great deal of international post-consumer materials trade takes place between developing countries. For example, the trade in waste paper and boxboard is in some cases many decades old (e.g., imports by the paper industry in India). Plastics, clothing, old machinery, and construction materials also are frequently traded internationally.

Unfortunately, two problems regarding the safety of imported recyclables have been documented:

  • mixed materials, which are thought to be clean, sometimes contain toxic substances; and
  • hazardous wastes have deliberately been mixed with the exported materials.

In developing countries, environmentalists have objected to imports of mixed plastics and containers that have not been thoroughly cleaned. Some governments have intervened with import bans designed to prevent the deceptive or inadvertent import of hazardous and contaminated wastes. On the other hand, fearing that the agreement also will inhibit export of safe recyclables, countries like Canada have questioned the Basel Convention on trade in hazardous wastes, which came into effect in 1992.

Imports, even of clean recyclables, may have adverse economic impacts in developing countries. Organizations of pickers and traders have protested the impact of better quality used materials on their profits. One official response has been trade restrictions designed to protect some industries, such as clothing manufacturing, by banning the import of used clothes (India, China).

If newly industrializing countries wish to import secondary materials for their recycling industries, government, industry, labor organizations, and social service groups need to weigh the costs and benefits for the economy and society. Spokespeople for underprivileged workers should be included in decision making among stakeholders.

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