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Maersk & Co.: Stop Shipping Plastic Waste to the Global South!

Waste loading at port, cargo ship transports containers of garbage

Plastic Waste loading at port | Bild: Parilov [CC0 1.0] - Shutterstock

#EmailYourBank to stop funding companies that ship plastic waste to the Global South

Container transportation and shipping is considered  a vital sector for the global economy; nonetheless (or rather, therefore) it is also prone to a number of controversies and harmful business practices. Industry giant Danish A. P. Møller-Mærsk is an illustrative example of what goes wrong in the sector. Apart from being the industry’s second largest polluter with 6.5 million tons of carbon emissions in 2020 – topped only by competitor MSC, which is the only non-power plant in Europe’s top ten biggest polluters – (Thomsen 2021), Maersk makes negative headlines with allegations of repeated sexual harassment, toxic masculine habits and rape culture aboard their ships (Ellis, Hicken 2022). Additionally, the carrier is involved in the lucrative and partly illegal plastic waste trafficking that Interpol has already investigated (INTERPOL 2020). Unfortunately, Maersk does neither disclose how much plastic waste the ships transport nor where the shipments go to, but according to the Danish NGO Plastic Change Maersk is one of the largest shipping companies in the world and should be transparent to the public about their plastic waste shipments (Sturlason, Thomsen 2022).

However, Maersk Supply Services has a plastic policy in place that aims to reduce plastic usage and waste from vessels and their suppliers every year. The main focus, though, lies on the respectable goal of collecting plastic debris for recycling from oceans and rivers, thus cleaning the oceans. Maersk provides the towing OSS vessel to The Ocean Cleanup, the Dutch non-profit organization developing advanced technologies to rid the oceans of plastic and relieve the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (Maersk Supply Services 2021, 6). Unfortunately, the project will not stop worldwide plastic pollution. In August 2021 the system collected only 8.2 tons of plastic, less than a garbage truck’s standard haul despite enormous costs in operation, research and development (Dickie 2021). As a company enabling harmful plastic waste shipments, Maersk should concentrate on its own role and less on end-of-pipeline attempts. The company should use its influence and stop exporting plastic waste to non-EU countries. This is why, at the March 2022 General Meeting, the Break Free From Plastic Movement has openly requested Maersk to stop plastic waste trade (BFFP 2021).

Without action, the annual flow of plastic into the ocean will nearly triple by 2040, to 29 million metric tons per year , equivalent to 50 kg of plastic for every metre of coastline worldwide (The Pew Charitable Trusts 2020, 9). Our 2021 Dirty Profits 8 report addresses plastic pollution and its impact on ecosystems, the climate and people’s livelihoods – and the role of corporations and banks that profit from the harmful plastic business, what we have called out as #plasticprofits. High-income countries generate the most plastic waste per capita (Ritchie, Roser 2018). For their overconsumption of plastic, they rely on international waste trade with low-to-middle income countries, many of which lack the resources and infrastructure to manage the junk of western countries.

In May 2019, 187 countries agreed to stricter rules on plastic waste exports in the Basel Convention: rules on plastic waste trade to address the increasing global plastic waste crisis, and in particular to prevent the acute harm to the environment and communities in importing countries caused by indiscriminate trade and dumping. The resolution means that contaminated and most mixes of plastic waste will require prior consent from receiving countries before they are traded, with the exceptions of mixes of PE, PP and PET (Picheta, Dean 2019). However, in mid-June 2022 the Basel Action Network (BAN) and member organizations of the Break Free from Plastic movement presented evidence of exporting countries failing to uphold the agreements to control hazardous plastic waste exports made at the Basel Convention in 2019, which came into force on January 1, 2021. The US and EU illegally exported approximately 20,500 containers of PVC plastic waste last year (Break Free From Plastic 2022).

The issues of continued plastic waste trade, exported primarily from the Global North to weaker economies are threefold. 1) It is a social justice issue: Because of the North-South direction of waste trade, the toxic burden exacerbates global inequalities to the extent that some call waste colonialism (ibid.). 2) The environmental issue is heavily evident: inherently toxic plastic that is mismanaged in recycling stations and landfills leaks directly into the oceans and microplastic residues are found in soil, air and water. This leads to 3) an animal and human health issue, because we consume contaminated crops through polluted soils and water. More directly, plastic waste mismanagement immediately impacts the health of local populations living in proximity to landfill sites (BFFP 2021, 3).

In addition to appealing for a sustainable r-triad “reduce, reuse, recycle”, stricter regulations and surveillance by supranational organizations in terms of international waste trade, Facing Finance and Plastic Change specifically call on Maersk to assume full responsibility of their own contribution to the issue and stop transporting plastic waste to countries that are not able to recycle that waste properly.

Earlier this year, one of the world’s largest container companies, CMA CGM Group, demonstrated that refusing to ship plastic waste to low-income countries is possible. At the One Ocean Summit organized by President Macron, the French container transportation and shipping company announced that it would stop transporting plastic waste aboard its ships effective June 1, 2022 (CMA CGM 2022). Before, CMA CGM transported about 50,000 containers filled with plastic every year. The action is part of the Group’s CSR strategy to protect biodiversity and a positive response to a call by more than 50 NGOs on the nine largest container shipping companies to stop transporting plastic waste to low-income countries (Plastic Soup Foundation 2022).

Unfortunately, Maersk does not seem to follow the positive example of CMA CGM, because the Danish Group thinks that it is not a good idea to cease or ban transport of plastic waste on environmental concerns. “One of the reasons that we do not see a general ban on transporting plastic waste as a feasible solution is that such a ban would prevent us from helping responsible companies and organizations freight plastic waste and other recycling materials to recycling sites in a responsible manner,” the carrier informed Danish online media ShippingWatch (Sturlason, Thomsen 2022).

Last year, the German shipping company Hapag Lloyd strikingly demonstrated how not to behave in a responsible manner: The company was caught in the act of fraud trying to bring 25 tons of plastic waste into Senegal. After Senegalese customs imposed a fine of 2 billion CFA Francs that the company agreed to pay, the ship in question was spotted docked in neighboring Mauritania (Greenpeace 2021). Hapag Lloyd does not track or publish any numbers on plastic waste transport and usage. The CSR report just vaguely commits to reducing waste on board and in dialogue with suppliers (Hapag Lloyd AG 2021, 78). The CSR-commitment by Italian-Swiss industry leader MSC on plastic waste trade is equally insufficient.

This is why we need your support: Join us in calling on shipping companies to #StopShippingPlasticWaste from the world’s wealthy economies, including the US, EU, UK, Japan, and Australia, to weaker economies in the Asia Pacific region, Africa, and Latin America. Sign the petition and tell the world’s top shipping companies, i. a. Maersk (Denmark), Hapag-Lloyd (Germany), MSC (Switzerland), to #StopShippingPlasticWaste. If you want to sign the petition directly confronting Danish carrier A. P. Møller-Mærsk, follow our friends of (Danish only).

What else can you do? Tell your bank to get involved! Shipping companies rely on banks such as Deutsche Bank, DZ Bank or Commerzbank and life insurance companies such as Allianz to finance or invest in their harmful business practices. The financial institutions that have financed or invested in the three companies lack public policies steering their financial and investment activities regarding companies shipping plastic waste. In times of plastic crisis this is unacceptable.

Financial relationships with Maersk, MSC and Hapag-Lloyd in € million
(lending, bond issues, shares held)

Pie chart financial relations to Maersk, Hapag LLoyd and MSC in Mio €: Deutsche Bank 517; DekaBank 59; Commerzbank 204; Axa 4; Allianz 55; SPK Düsseldorf 1; UniCredit 172; LBBW 3; ING 404; DZ Bank 231

Financial relationships to shipping companies (data from Refinitiv Eikon)

To know more about waste trade, head over to Break Free from Plastic’s page:


Author: Simon Kötschau