Image by Rachel Moon/Frontier Myanmar

European and North American plastic waste is being dumped in low-income communities in Myanmar, one of the world’s most repressive states, contributing to the poisoning of the environment and endangering lives and livelihoods.

That is the finding of this investigation led by Lighthouse Reports,  a Dutch-based investigative newsroom that works with leading media outlets on public interest collaborations. For this project, Lighthouse Reports teamed up with Politico, The Independent,, Frontier Myanmar, Prachatai and The Canadian Press.

International rules are meant to restrict plastic waste exports. But an opaque global supply chain and haphazard regulatory system is easy to game by companies wanting to get rid of plastic that cannot be recycled, and offload it on countries thousands of miles away, the investigation found.

Until 2018, most of the world’s plastic waste was sent to China. Then Beijing banned plastic waste imports and massive flows were diverted to Southeast Asia. After public protests, some of the region’s biggest importers are now closing their doors, with Thailand, Malaysia and Vietnam all moving to gradually block plastic waste imports.

But Thailand’s ban will have a major loophole — it will not restrict the large flows of plastic waste being sent to the country for transit to Myanmar.

People in Myanmar have little ability to protest. In the aftermath of a military coup in 2021, all public dissent has been quashed. Established environmentalists have been forced into silence. And corruption is running rampant — it’s easier than ever to bring foreign trash into the country over the porous border with Thailand.

Oversight almost impossible

The journalists analysed international and national trade data from Thailand, Myanmar and exporting countries to document both the scale of the trade and systemic inconsistencies in how it is monitored and measured. Major data discrepancies and indications of misreporting showed how opaque the plastic waste trade is, making oversight almost impossible.

In Myanmar, reporters collected samples of foreign plastic dumped in a neighbourhood of Yangon and spoke to local residents about the damage it is causing. Journalists in Thailand, Myanmar and exporting countries interviewed dozens of people involved in the supply chain bringing plastics into Myanmar, from logistics companies to border smugglers, recycling factories and waste collectors. Reporters spoke to industry associations and obtained lists of importers and exporters by digging through open-source records.

They identified international exporters in the United States and Canada through customs records databases and analysed how they exploit transit countries to under-report the plastic they are sending to Myanmar based on bills of lading and shipping data.

‘No one dares to speak out’

A working-class township in Yangon, Myanmar’s largest city, is littered with plastic wrappers from Canada, Poland and the United Kingdom. Shwepyithar, which translates as the “Golden and Pleasant City”, is today anything but, with almost every block polluted by heaps of plastic waste and other trash.

Residents told Frontier Myanmar the plastic is dangerous — it catches fire, releasing hazardous fumes, and clogs sewers and streams, making monsoon flooding much worse. But since the 2021 coup in Myanmar, they are too afraid of the military-run government to complain.

“In normal times, under a civilian government, this kind of problem would be easy to solve. But now, we’re in a difficult situation if we complain about anything,” said one resident. “No one dares to speak out, so I have to suffer this until I can move…. At my age, I can no longer bear being beaten or tortured. I only have my hopes. My mind isn’t strong like when I was young.”

Myanmar has banned the import of this kind of plastic waste. But waste traders described a convenient loophole – foreign plastic is shipped to Thailand and then transported over the porous land border with Myanmar. Officials told Prachatai that this route will not be restricted by Thailand’s upcoming plastic waste ban.

Most of the foreign brands found dumped in Shwepyithar said they had no idea how their products ended up there. But a large amount of plastic packaging came from the warehouse of the UK branch of German-owned supermarket chain Lidl, suggesting it was disposed of directly by the company rather than customers. Lidl told The Independent they were “disappointed” and would investigate.

New global rules introduced in 2021 were meant to prevent the export of plastic waste to countries where it could not be recycled. But in practice, there are workarounds. Canada has continued to export plastic waste to Myanmar since then, and some brands only found in Canada were dumped in Shwepyithar. Yet the Environment Department told The Canadian Press they had never issued an export permit for plastic waste to Myanmar.

The EU is currently considering banning all plastic waste exports as part of broader reforms of waste legislation. EU lawmakers told Politico a total ban was the only way to prevent plastic waste ending up in the world’s most vulnerable countries.

Some campaigners want the same for the UN Global Plastics Treaty, which is currently being negotiated and should be finalised by the end of 2024. “There is no making this better; there is no responsible plastic waste export,” said US plastic waste expert Jan Dell.

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This text was adapted with permission from Lighthouse Reports.

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