|Importing and exporting recyclables: environmental and economic
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
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.