For decades, wealthy nations have transported plastic trash, and the environmental problems that go with it, to poorer countries, but researchers have found a potential bright side to this seemingly unequal trade: plastic waste may provide an economic boon for the lower-income countries.

Jennifer Givens.
Yikang Bai.

In a study published in the Journal of World Systems Research, Washington State University sociology PhD alumni Yikang Bai and Jennifer Givens analyzed 11 years of data on the global plastics trade against economic measures for 85 countries. They found that the import of plastic waste was associated with growth in gross domestic product per capita in the lower-income countries.

“Our study offers a nuanced understanding of the global trade in plastic waste,” said Bai, lead author on the study. “Media coverage often has a narrative that developed countries shift environmental harms to less developed countries. There’s another layer of the story: plastic waste could be used as a resource first, even though ultimately it could still add to the environmental burdens of less-developed countries.”

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