- Lioman Lima – @liomanlima
- BBC News World
For years, in the world of politics, Latin America has been considered “the US’s backyard,” its “zone of influence.”
Now, environmental groups in the region say it has become something else: their dump.
And it is that since 2018, the export levels of plastic waste from the United States to Latin America have increased considerably, with 2021 being the year in which the largest amount of US garbage was exported to Latin American countries since records are kept.
According to data from Last Beach Cleanup, a California-based environmental organization, as of October last year, the US had sent more than 89.824.167 kilograms of plastic waste to the countries of the area, some of which received even double the amount than in 2020.
The situation led to the fact that last December, the environmentalist platform Gaia, which brings together 130 organizations from Latin America and the Caribbean, published a statement demanding that the governments of the region take action in what it considers an emergency situation.
“We warn that we are facing an imminent danger of contamination of nature and violation of the rights of communities to live in a safe environment for their health and that of their territories,” the statement said.
The main destination for plastic waste exports is Mexico, which from January to October 2021 received close to 60.503.460 kg, which is equivalent to about 57 containers per day.
However, tons of garbage were also sent during 2021 to Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, the Dominican Republic and even Venezuela.
“The United States is flooding Latin America with plastic waste, particularly from California to Mexico. But although the amount of garbage that is exported to Mexico is disproportionate, the amount that is sent to the rest of Latin America is not less if we compare the size of the countries and the amount of population,” he tells BBC Mundo Jan Dell, an environmental engineer and creator of the Last Beach Cleanup.
“And it’s not just a question of size or population. It’s that these countries in most cases, already have enough problems dealing with their own garbage and processing it to also have to deal with plastic garbage from the US. .” he adds.
This is the case of some such as Honduras, which has had environmental differences with Guatemala due to the issue of garbage and which until November 2021 received 6.127.221 kg of plastic waste, more than double the 2,250,593 kg it received in all of 2020.
While El Salvador, which has few garbage processing facilities, received some 1,932,206 kg in November 2021 alone.
For environmentalists, the big question is what happens or where the garbage sent to these countries ends up.
According to María Fernanda Solís, an expert on environmental issues at the Simón Bolívar Andean University in Ecuador, although exports of plastic waste from the US to Latin America have been going on for years, they began to increase as a result of China announcing that it would stop to receive this waste.
“In 2018, China decided to stop being the world’s dump and that’s when the United States found an escape route in Latin America,” the expert told BBC Mundo.
“With weakened governments and with weak regulatory, normative and legal frameworks as there are in our countries, the region is a perfect setting to carry out gigantic imports of plastic waste,” he adds.
According to Dell, other specific contexts contributed to the records reached in the last year.
“US plastic waste exports to Latin America increased markedly in 2021 compared to 2020 and I think this is due to the stricter import restrictions they have imposed in Turkey and Asia, but it may also be due to the crisis. of containers, which has significantly increased the cost of shipping waste from the US to Asia,” he says.
The main reason for exports, according to the expert, is because US companies find it easier (and cheaper) to ship garbage to other countries than to process it and having to deal with state environmental regulations or the high costs of America’s few processing centers.
“In the end, it’s about money. It’s much cheaper to put plastic waste in trucks and ship it across borders in a container than to have to pay to go to a landfill. It’s easier to send our garbage somewhere else.” sides and ´we all live happily ever after,´” he says.
“In addition, there is also the fact that producing plastic today is much cheaper than recycling it. So, it is not a business that brings benefits to American companies, so it is cheaper to send it elsewhere,” he adds.
the garbage market
According to Solís, these contexts have turned garbage into a business for non-state companies throughout Latin America.
“They are generally private companies that import this waste in direct agreement with US companies or US municipalities,” he says.
“In the case of Ecuador, for example, we receive the same amount of garbage each year from the US that 40 of our cities would produce. That is, 20 companies in Ecuador import from the US the same amount of plastic waste that they would produce 40 cities in our country”, he specifies.
However, the mechanism is no stranger to controversy, given that environmental groups and experts denounce that these companies take advantage of some legal loopholes to import garbage that many of these countries should not receive… at least not legally.
And it is that many of the Latin American nations that receive this waste are signatories to the Basel Convention, which regulates the import of plastic waste.
“However, in our countries there are mechanisms, loopholes and legal black holes to allow these wastes to continue entering, despite the fact that these countries are signatories to these international agreements and, therefore, the entry of these wastes constitutes a violation of these international treaties,” says Solís.
According to the academic, the research carried out shows that one of the ways in which this occurs is that, generally, when this waste is imported, it is done with the “raw material” tag, which, in his opinion, is a way of “disguising” the content.
“In most countries, customs barely check these shipments of garbage, so it is very difficult to regulate what goes in,” he says.
But in his opinion, there is an even more worrying aspect.
“What the studies show is that, in reality, more than 50% of the plastic garbage that reaches us cannot be processed, because it is contaminated. So ends up being buried, abandoned in streams, rivers or landfillsbecause it doesn’t work,” he says.
The expert mentions that several investigations carried out show that the authorities do not follow up on this waste after it leaves the ports, so there is no real control over what happens to this garbage and how it is processed or where it ends up.
Environmental and human impacts
Those engaged in the garbage business in the region allege that the plastic waste import market constitutes a fountain from employment for thousands of people, in addition to contributing to the “circular economy” and the recycling of raw materials.
However, environmentalists believe that, in practice, the reality is often very different.
Dell points out that, as it is not a process supervised by authorities, there are complaints that many of these companies not only they pay miserable wages their workers, but do not offer them safe working conditions or adequate protection.
Various local media reports have reported in recent years of people working in the garbage without even wearing gloves and some of these companies have been accused of using child labor.
“There is the environmental dimension, the damage that is done to the environment when this garbage is taken to countries that do not have conditions for its processing or that already have too many problems with their own garbage, but also the human dimension, the dangers of not having regulation or oversight on the work done by thousands of people who come into contact with this waste,” Dell says.
Dell and Solís agree that most of the countries in the region suffer from problems processing and disposing of their own garbage, which is why it is an extra problem for them “to also have to bear the responsibility for the garbage from the United States.” “.
“In addition to the fact that these wastes can end up anywhere or be burned and generate toxic gases, their processing also requires large amounts of water, which means that many communities may see their access to water affected, in addition to the fact that many of these companies do not have the capacity to treat that dirty wastewater,” says Dell.
The engineer explains that this is one of the great concerns in northern Mexico, which has serious problems of water scarcity and, at the same time, is the area that receives the most garbage because it is so close to California, Texas and New Mexico.
Solís, for his part, believes that the issue has become a state issue, given that sometimes it is the governments that ultimately have to bear the cost of waste disposal.
“Although it is private companies that import this plastic waste, although it is the capital of a few who are getting rich from this business, in the end it is the state that has to cushion not only the economic costs of managing that garbage, but the environmental impacts that this can cause in the short, medium and long term for entire communities,” he adds.
In the academic’s opinion, this situation reproduces colonial mechanisms of previous decades.
“Expressions of colonialism have evolved and now it is also expressed in this form: in exporting to the south large amounts of contaminated plastic waste that end up turning these territories into sacrifice zones,” he says.
“It is once again a colonial occupation, a kind of garbage imperialism, and as a consequence they are generating all sorts of environmental impacts on the communities whose most serious consequences are yet to be seen,” he concludes.
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