Traded Plastic, Traded Impacts? Designing Counterfactual Scenarios to Assess Environmental Impacts of Global Plastic Waste Trade

Kai Li*, Hauke Ward, Hai Xiang Lin, Arnold Tukker

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleScientificpeer-review

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Abstract

The global trade of plastic waste has raised environmental concerns, especially regarding pollution in waste-importing countries. However, the overall environmental contribution remains unclear due to uncertain treatment shares between handling plastic waste abroad and domestically. Here, we conduct a life cycle assessment of global plastic waste trade in 2022 across 18 countries and six plastic waste types, alongside three “nontrade” counterfactual scenarios. By considering the required cycling rate, which balances importers’ costs and recycling revenues, we find that the trade resulted in lower environmental impacts than treating domestically with the average treatment mix. The trade scenario alone reduced climate change impact by 2.85 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent and mitigated damages to ecosystem quality, human health, and resource availability by 12 species-years, 6200 disability-adjusted life years (DALYs), and 1.4 billion United States dollars (USD in 2013), respectively. These results underscore the significance of recognizing plastic waste trade as a pivotal factor in regulating global secondary plastic production when formulating a global plastics treaty.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)8631–8642
Number of pages12
JournalEnvironmental Science and Technology
Volume58
Issue number20
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 2024

Keywords

  • environmental impact of trade
  • environmental justice
  • life cycle assessment
  • plastic footprint
  • plastic pollution
  • plastic waste import and export
  • plastic waste treatment
  • waste colonialism

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