A recycling factory in Kayin State's Myawaddy, in September. (Wanna Taemthong)

Skirting the law: Global companies exploit loopholes to dump waste in Myanmar

In recent years, the international community has accelerated efforts to crack down on the global waste trade – a harmful business that allows the rich to prey on the poor – but a lack of enforcement and a number of loopholes keep the trade afloat.

In a six month investigation into the plastic waste trade, Frontier uncovered an opaque global supply chain that is easily exploited by foreign companies. In partnership with investigative newsroom Lighthouse Reports and media organisations in five countries, Frontier found evidence that Myanmar has been used as a dumping ground for wealthy countries and is at risk of being flooded with even more foreign plastic in the coming years.

This article is part two of a two part series. Part one can be found here.


On any given day, the Thai side of the Moei River is bustling with traders loading hundreds of boxes onto small boats or rafts that cross the narrow stretch of water to Myanmar’s southeastern Kayin State. 

At one river crossing, Frontier approached a group of workers sitting around a shaded table, sheltering from the midday heat. One of the men stood up and asked, “What do you want to ship? We can take anything.”

There are customs checks on the Thai riverbank but in Myanmar, these imports are illegal, with goods and people only officially allowed via the two nearby Thai-Myanmar Friendship Bridges. Nonetheless, the river crossings have been used for decades to deliver basic food products like soy milk and cooking oil. But they are also a popular conduit for more illicit cargo, including drugs, weapons and even people, and in recent years, a more unlikely contraband has emerged – plastic waste. 

Often indistinguishable from other forms of plastic, the import of plastic waste is illegal in Myanmar. However, this has not stifled the demand from recyclers who rely on foreign plastic to manufacture consumer goods, nor the supply from international companies looking to dump waste far from home. 

While some plastic waste is transported over the two friendship bridges, the majority is smuggled via the docks that line the river, said a staff member at an import-export office in the town of Myawaddy on the Myanmar side of the border, speaking to Frontier through a third party for security reasons.

According to United Nations Comtrade data, the largest global trade database, most of the foreign plastic imported into Myanmar comes from its eastern neighbour, but not all of that waste originates in Thailand. 

Since 2017, countries around the world have exported more than a million tonnes of plastic waste to Thailand, but recyclers, traders and environmental experts told Frontier that some of this plastic is only passing through. Because it’s easier to ship goods over less regulated land borders than through sea ports, Thailand is perfectly positioned to act as a transit country for plastic waste moving from Europe and North America to its real destination – Myanmar. 

In this investigation into the global recycling trade, Frontier found evidence that significant quantities of foreign plastic waste are arriving in Myanmar via Thailand, although the exact amount is unknown. The illegal trade is facilitated and covered up by widespread mislabelling and a number of loopholes in Thai, Myanmar and international law. It has also been exacerbated by the 2021 military coup, which has caused instability and a breakdown in environmental regulations.

Falling through the cracks

Earlier this year, Thailand announced that it would phase out the import of plastic waste over a two-year period and plastic scraps over a three-year period. Both are traded under the same 3915 HS code, a standardised method of classifying global trade items. Myanmar added the code to its Negative Import List in 2019, making the plastic waste trade illegal. However, it exempted plastic scraps imported by licensed companies, and according to Frontier’s investigations, hasn’t enforced the broader ban either .

Thailand’s ban comes five years after China, previously the world’s largest dumping ground, announced its own ban on waste imports. However, Thailand’s plan, while ambitious, will not cover the most exploited loophole in the country’s customs regulations – and one that has a significant impact on Myanmar.

Transit agreements allow for goods to be imported into Thailand, moved across the country, then exported to a third country, leaving barely any trace. U Okka Phyo Maung, the founder and head of Myanmar recycling organisation RecyGlo, which does not ship plastic waste but is familiar with the issue, described the agreements as being “a good way to bypass the legal system”.

“There’s a lot of transit waste where the shipment is unloaded in a Thai port and then they use a transit agreement to go through a land border to Myanmar,” said Okka Phyo Maung. 

He explained that after trucking the goods to the border, the same logistics company will either transport the goods to destinations in Myanmar or hand them over to a Myanmar firm. 

Under Thailand’s 2017 customs regulations, customs officers can search containers in transit if they believe the shipment is carrying an illegal item. However, in practice, this doesn’t seem to be enforced, allowing plastic waste to move through the country virtually unimpeded. 

According to two Thai logistics companies that spoke to Frontier, shipments sent under a transit agreement are typically never opened and examined while in the country – either by customs officials or the logistics company transporting the goods. One of the companies said that shipments may be subject to random X-ray checks in Laem Chabang, Thailand’s largest sea port, or the border town of Mae Sot, opposite Myawaddy, but these checks would be unable to distinguish illegal plastic waste from other, legal plastic materials.

Khun Sompong*, a Thai customs officer, explained that checks on shipping containers transiting through Thailand generally only involve paperwork.

“Customs only checks the documents that are stamped on the container door to see if they are in good condition or not,” said Sompong. “The inspection of the items falls under the duty of the customs of the exporting country or the destination country.”

Mr Punyathorn Jeungsmarn, a communications officer at environmental group EARTH Thailand, said that another “big issue for Thailand” is the lack of clarity on who “controls the route”. He explained that hazardous waste should fall under the Department of Industrial Works, but “to verify that a container contains trash or waste as reported is solely up to the Customs Department” and neither agency seems to share information with the other.

Yet, despite transit agreements enabling the flow of plastic waste into Myanmar, the then-Minister of Natural Resources and Environment Mr Varawut Silpa-archa confirmed in June that Thailand’s “2025 ban does not include imports for transit”.

Varawut, who announced the new policy in September last year, did not explain why and Thailand’s Customs Department did not respond to numerous requests for comment. 

“Thailand is making a lot of noise about banning plastics and then allowing illegal transit to Myanmar – that’s really hypocritical. If they’re going to abide by the law for their own country, they need to do so for their neighbours,” said Mr Jim Puckett, the executive director of the Basel Action Network, a United States organisation working to combat the export of toxic waste.

Traders unload food items into boats on the Thai side of the Moei River marking the border with Myanmar in August. (Allegra Mendelson | Frontier)

Transit agreements can also be used to conceal evidence of a shipment. Countries are meant to report transit countries as “a secondary reporting partner” in their submissions to UN Comtrade. But no country reported using Thailand as such between 2017 and 2022, despite multiple Myanmar-based recyclers telling Frontier that waste they purchased from Thailand had originated in other countries, including the US, Japan, Malaysia, South Korea and Australia. 

Certain US customs records show exporters listing Thailand as the final destination and include a note in the description field that the terminal will be in Myanmar, but these brief mentions are not logged in official data.

Submissions to UN Comtrade are entirely voluntary and depend on individual countries accurately reporting their trade. There are no enforcement mechanisms in place to verify the data or flag suspicious entries. 

“The data collected is often out of date, and there's no check on that data. We’re left with this fog of mis-declared, missing data. It's a licence to hide in plain sight,” explained Mr Willie Wilson, the former vice chair of INTERPOL’s Pollution Crime Working Group, referring not just to Comtrade but all trade data.

The use of the transit loophole extends beyond Thailand. A 2020 INTERPOL survey of 40 national law enforcement agencies found that 60 percent reported an increase in illegal waste shipments using transit countries to obscure their routes after China implemented its ban on plastic waste in 2018.

Ms Jan Dell, the founder of The Last Beach Cleanup, a anti-plastic pollution campaign group based in the US, explained that governments simply don’t think collecting data on the waste trade is important.

“Other valuable commodities might get better tracking because governments want to monitor it, or tax it. This is just trash – it gets the least attention, least worth. Countries are not requiring it to be reported and data is just not collected. [It’s seen as a] worthless commodity, which in the past has been viewed as an inert nothing and now we understand that it is toxic,” said Dell.

Fuel to the fire

The transit agreements allow for plastic waste to move freely through Thailand, but a lack of oversight once shipments arrive at the Myanmar border only adds more fuel to the garbage fire. 

Even under an elected government, cracking down on the plastic waste trade was not a priority, but since the 2021 coup, the issue has been neglected almost entirely.

“The system is leakier, has less capacity, a different set of priorities, and is more corrupt. The kinds of jurisdictions like Myanmar which don’t have very good governance and have high levels of corruption are exactly the kinds of places where plastic waste and other kinds of waste migrate to,” said Mr Richard Horsey, a senior advisor on Myanmar at the Brussels-based think tank International Crisis Group.

“It’s a sea of nastiness that finds the cracks that flow through these less regulated jurisdictions.” 

A boundary post at the first Thai-Myanmar Friendship Bridge, seen from Mae Sot in August. (Allegra Mendelson | Frontier)

Since it seized power, the military has focused on fighting a growing armed resistance movement. Consequently, its efforts to crack down on illegal trade have largely been restricted to the smuggling of weapons and explosives, added Horsey.

The plastic waste trade also seems to be a low priority for the National Unity Government, a parallel administration appointed by elected lawmakers deposed in the coup, which has also focused its attention on the conflict. U Kyaw Zaw, spokesperson for the NUG’s President’s Office, said that they “only have limited information on the topic of plastic waste trade”, and that its efforts are directed more at environmental awareness raising.

It’s a similar story with the Karen National Union, one of Myanmar’s largest ethnic armed groups and a close ally of the NUG. While the KNU controls swaths of territory in Kayin through which a lot of the waste is transported, central executive committee member Padoh Saw Taw Nee said that he did “not have any information on this issue”.

U Min Maw, a former deputy director-general in the pollution control department at Myanmar’s Ministry of Natural Resources and Environmental Conservation who retired shortly before the coup, said government officials have long struggled to differentiate between legal and illegal plastics.

Since plastic waste and plastic scraps are visually nearly identical and are both traded under the same HS3915 shipping code, Min Maw said that “customs officers and other government officers just know that 3915 is allowed to pass” and lack the tools and knowhow to properly scrutinise the shipments for illegal content.

While Myanmar’s nominal ban on plastic waste imports exempts plastic scraps imported by licenced companies, Min Maw estimated that fewer than 10 companies are granted such a permit each year. He added that MoNREC is not present at border checkpoints – which are managed by the Ministry of Commerce – but it is involved in evaluating prospective scrap importers and advising on whether to issue import licences. But even this responsibility is minimal, he said.

Daw Zin Mar Tun, a second secretary at the junta-controlled MoNREC, told Frontier the ministry is still issuing licences every year. However, since the coup, the approved companies have not been made public.

A lot of imported plastic waste ends up in informal dumps such as this one in Yangon. (Supplied)

“The [environment] ministry is aware that there is illegal trade of plastic waste but we cannot prevent it because it is not our job,” she said. Instead, she pointed to the Illegal Trade Eradication Steering Committee under the commerce ministry.

According to numerous articles in the state-run Global New Light of Myanmar newspaper, the committee’s meetings are normally overseen by the junta’s second-in-command, Vice Senior General Soe Win. But despite this top billing, Horsey said the committee is largely “performative”.

“It mainly does small checkpoints and raids on the Myawaddy to Yangon road, identifying things that aren’t allowed to be imported or exported or don’t have the right paperwork,” said Horsey. 

“It’s all about showing you’re doing something but we all know it’s had zero impact on the big picture. If we look at the mirror trade analysis between Myanmar and Thailand it’s getting worse; there’s more unregulated trade, not less,” he said, referring to the huge discrepancy between Thailand’s recorded exports to Myanmar and Myanmar’s import figures.

Dancing to the tune of the authorities

This discrepancy is explained in large part by the more than 30 river crossings between Mae Sot and Myawaddy, often referred to as “boat gates”.

In August Frontier visited two such boat gates north of the Thai-Myanmar Friendship Bridge-1 where agents said they usually transport large quantities of plastic waste over the river to Myanmar every day. 

Two agents at these gates said that these shipments were paused in early August due to flooding along the road on the Myanmar side. While the trade is still suspended as of press time, one agent said he expects it to resume at the end of the monsoon season “around November or December”.

At a third gate, a worker said that they used to “trade garbage and plastic waste” but stopped three years ago for reasons he didn’t explain.

The agent at the first border gate, who spoke to Frontier anonymously, said that on any given day they unload around six 6-wheel trucks worth of “used plastic” onto boats and rafts that cross to Myanmar. 

At the second gate a few kilometres north, the amount moved is even greater. The gate manager told Frontier that they normally transport five 40-foot trucks of plastic waste to Myanmar every day and are paid around 16,000 baht ($460) per truck.

He said that most of the plastic waste he receives is conveyed by Far Far Shipping Service, a Thai logistics company based in Mae Sot. However, a deputy manager at the company denied this, claiming it hasn’t shipped plastic waste for “many years”.

U Htun Khaing*, a Mandalay-based recycler who imports plastic waste, told Frontier that since it’s illegal to import plastic waste into Myanmar, he “cannot use official ports”. “It’s like we are renting a port in Thailand to import waste [into Myanmar],” he explained.

While Htun Khaing brings plastic waste into the country himself, most importers use brokers who serve as middlemen between Thai importers or logistics companies and Myanmar buyers, and oversee the transport of the waste across the border. 

To pass through the riverside border gates, he said that importers have long had to “pay duty tax to the officials and a bribe”, but this has become easier since the coup. 

“In the past, we had to be careful or we had to pay officials secretly. Now, the payments are more open and the officials do not care much about being noticed by others,” said Htun Khaing.

But further challenges persist after the goods have crossed the border. To carry the shipments to his factories in Mandalay, Htun Khaing has to pass through the Mayanchaung checkpoint in Bago Region where junta authorities carry out regular inspections. 

“At the Mayanchaung gate they check the goods with X-ray machines, so we have to say that these are local products. It is illegal, so we have to dance to the tune of the authorities,” said Htun Khaing. 

On the Thai side, the boat gates near Mae Sot are overseen by customs officials and goods are officially recorded. At some of the gates visited by Frontier, Thai soldiers were seen inspecting the shipments and taking pictures of the containers.

A Thai soldier surveys men unloading goods onto a raft in the Moei River, which marks the border between Myanmar and Thailand, in August. This border gate normally ships five 40-foot trucks-worth of plastic waste every day. (Allegra Mendelson | Frontier)

However, on the Myanmar side, the gates are not managed by any government agency and as a result, customs “cannot check the goods that are passing through the gate”, according to the anonymous staff member from the import-export office in Myawaddy.

“It’s very well regulated on the Thai side. The gates are numbered, they have customs, they have phytosanitary inspection – these are official formal export channels as far as the Thais are concerned. It all gets recorded in their border trade figures,” said Horsey. “It’s only on the Myanmar side that the gates are not manned by agents of the state and therefore are informal gates.”

Nearly 30 gates, including the two Frontier confirmed import plastic waste, are controlled by the Kayin State Border Guard Force, an armed group formally under the command of the Myanmar military. Horsey said this doesn’t mean the BGF is behind the trade, but it is “taxing what’s going across”.

But although the BGF is majorly complicit in smuggling beer, vehicles and other goods as well as human trafficking, it is above reproach from the military as a key ally in the war with the KNU and other armed groups in Kayin.

“The stuff going through informal gates, this is the same category as smuggled beer imports, which the regime knows about, can’t be happy about because it’s a loss to its revenue, but doesn’t feel it can do anything about it because they need the Karen BGF for other things,” said Horsey.

Drastic discrepancies

The difference in oversight at the border gates is reflected in the drastic mismatch between Thai and Myanmar trade data. 

According to data submitted by Myanmar to UN Comtrade, from 2017 to 2021 it imported around 14,000 tonnes of plastic waste from Thailand. However, data reported by Thailand is eight times larger – 114,000 tonnes. In fact, Myanmar is seemingly underreporting most of its import data to UN Comtrade with the exception of a handful of countries.

With Thailand, the Myanmar junta has broadly acknowledged the discrepancy in data. According to the state-run media, Myanmar reported over $1.6 billion less in total imports than Thailand in the last year but only speculated that it “might be caused by illegal trade”. 

The junta-controlled Ministry of Commerce did not respond to Frontier’s requests for comment. 

Thailand and Myanmar’s data align more closely in 2021, with only a 3,000 tonne difference, which Horsey speculated may have been due to COVID-19 border closures. He explained that during the pandemic, the informal trade gates managed by the BGF were “sealed”, forcing most trade to go through official channels where it would more likely be logged in customs records.

Thailand hasn’t yet released its data for 2022, but environmentalists worry that if Bangkok rolls out its ban without plugging the existing loopholes, more plastic waste will be diverted to Myanmar. 

After China’s 2018 ban came into effect, Mandalay recycler Htun Khaing said that he noticed more plastic pellet factories appearing in Myanmar and a similar pattern could develop when Thailand’s ban comes into effect.

Punyathorn from EARTH Thailand explained that banning the import of HS3915 might make a small dent but will not put an end to the trade entirely due to the widespread mislabeling.

“HS3915 is the big group. Banning it will help but it is not a perfect solution because the industry can find other ways to import… Simply put, it can help but it doesn't solve all the problems. When they ban this group, they will go somewhere else and find another way,” said Punyathorn.

Thailand alone cannot stamp out this trade. Wilson, the international pollution crime specialist, said that it’s a global problem that is “only going to get worse”. 

"The inability to track movements comprehensively means people can disappear quickly, transactions can change descriptions, through misdeclaration or otherwise," he said. "This lack of transparency is one of the most significant problems in this entire issue and it lends itself to unscrupulous actors operating in the shadows."

*Indicates use of a pseudonym for security or sensitivity reasons.

Additional reporting by Rachel Moon, Naw Betty Han, Kannikar Petchkaew, Sicha Rungrojtanakul, Eva Constantaras, Charlotte Alfred, Nalinee Maleeyakul and Ye Mon.

The production of this investigation was supported by a grant from the Investigative Journalism for Europe (IJ4EU) fund. This article was published in collaboration with Prachatai, The Canadian Press, Front Story, The Independent and Politico.

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