What are the impacts of the global trade in plastic waste? Since Larry Summers argued, “the economic logic behind dumping a load of toxic waste in the lowest wage country is impeccable” in a 1991 World Bank memo, cross-country flows of plastic waste have increased seven-fold. Yet the consequences of this trade are poorly understood, partially due to the lack of even the most basic descriptive data about what happens to exported waste at its many destinations. This project aims to collect that data and use it to answer questions about the economic and environmental impacts of the trade in plastic waste. In particular, the author plans to study the effects of imports of plastic waste on jobs, livelihoods, air and water pollution, and human health.
To collect the necessary data, the author builds a machine learning model using satellite data to systematically identify informal open-air waste sites in Southeast Asia, with plans to expand to other regions. Their time series covers 2016 to the present, coinciding with the launch of the Sentinel 2 satellites. They train the machine learning model using crowdsourced reports of mismanaged plastic waste from individuals’ observations on the ground and apply new methods to understand the potential biases in the data collection. Finally, the author relies on a natural experiment to study the causal effects of plastic imports on livelihoods and environmental outcomes. Before 2018, China accounted for nearly 50% of global plastic imports. However, a national import ban reduced that number to essentially zero in just a few months. The resulting flood of plastic waste to other countries in the region allows us to isolate the impacts of plastic imports from other potential confounders.
The project has the potential to inform trade and environmental policies in low- and middle-income countries and begin to address a crucial gap in the academic literature due to the previous absence of spatially disaggregated data on plastic waste sites. The Chinese waste import ban has upended global recycling markets and led to significant inflows of waste to other developing countries, several of which responded with their own bans. Plastic waste trade is also an important topic for multilateral policy. In 2019, 187 countries signed an amendment limiting plastic waste exports to developing countries. The US was one of a handful of countries not to sign.