Covering up with a plastic smile

US manufacturers are marketing plastic containers that are labelled recyclable but have to be exported on the sly to developing countries for disposal. The environmental group Greenpeace pointed out the American plastics industry thus satisfies its environmentally conscious consumers by presenting a "green" image, while dumping potentially hazardous material in the developing world. In 1991, American companies exported 80,000 tonnes of plastic to various developing countries. In 1992, till May, 55,718 tonnes of plastic had been exported.

Exporting used plastic containers to the Third World enables American companies to get around domestic regulations and community opposition. They can also pay their workers less plus achieve a form of domestic "green" veneer, Greenpeace stated. Plastics do not degrade and so cannot be disposed in landfills; nor can they be incinerated because they release toxic chemicals into the air.

Asia is the main export target of these companies. Greenpeace figures show that in 1991, 7,500 tonnes of plastic were dumped in the Philippines, 17,500 tonnes in Indonesia and 37,500 tonnes in Hong Kong, most of which was sent on to mainland China. Plastic waste export to India amounted to 34 shipments containing more than 2,000 tonnes of plastic.

The Greenpeace probe showed though the Philippines has strict laws against toxic waste imports, its monitoring system is underfunded and ineffective.

In Hong Kong and other overpopulated Asian cities, the recycling is done in small rooms in run-down skyscrapers that become in effect potential death-traps.

Greenpeace investigators asserted companies that proclaimed their plastic is recyclable, gloss over the facts that as the plastic is seldom recycled into the same product, there is no reduction in the total amount of plastic used. Nor does recycling remove toxic materials from plastic and these toxins eventually will find their way into the environment.

Public opinion against plastics mounted in the late 1980s, with a poll showing 70 per cent of American people believed plastics to be harmful to people and their environment. In business terms, this meant fewer people were likely to buy plastic-packaged goods and therefore, the market for plastic would shrink. However, with the kind of greenwash plastic companies are resorting to, American plastic is clearly choking the Third World.