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Plastic Waste Trade: The Hidden Numbers

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Though they only account for 16 percent of the world’s population, high-income countries generate about 34 percent of the world’s waste. A large portion of the generated wastes are plastics, which often contain toxic chemicals.

Historically, high-income countries have exported a significant amount of plastic waste under the guise of recycling. This toxic plastic waste trade harms human health and the environment locally and globally. But current reporting systems frequently underestimate the volumes of plastic wastes that are traded globally, leading to a frequent underestimation of the plastic waste trade by researchers who generally rely on this reporting system.

A recent analysis, “Plastic Waste Trade: The Hidden Numbers,” produced by the International Pollutants Elimination Network (IPEN), found that the overall plastic trade is more than 40% higher than previous estimates, and even this number fails to reflect the trade of plastics and wastes in textiles, rubber, plastic contamination of paper bales, and other sources. The real amount of plastics and plastic wastes, and of toxic chemicals contained in plastics and wastes that move globally via trade is likely to be even higher.

As plastic production increases, plastic wastes will also skyrocket. Estimates show we will produce 26 billion metric tons of plastic waste by 2050. We cannot manage this level of waste generation sustainably, and without global policies to reduce plastic production, there will continue to be an unequal exchange of plastic wastes from high-income countries to non-high-income countries.

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