Ecologically Unequal Exchange of Plastic Waste?

A Longitudinal Analysis of International Trade in Plastic Waste


  • Yikang Bai Washington State University
  • Jennifer E. Givens Utah State University



Ecologically Unequal Exchange, Plastic Waste, Trade, Environment, Development


Plastic production has been increasing since mass production of plastics started in the 1950s. As plastic production has continued to rise, so has plastic waste. Meanwhile, international trade in plastic waste has increased as well. The narrative about global trade in plastic waste oftentimes is that the Global North transfers waste to the Global South. However, little is known quantitatively about the extent to which the Global North shifts environmental harms of plastic waste to the Global South. We examine the extent to which global trade in plastic waste provides evidence for ecologically unequal exchange relationships from 2003 to 2013. We then explore whether plastic waste can be a resource for some countries. Specifically, we investigate how trade in plastic waste is associated with level of economic development in high-income countries and non-high-income countries. The findings provide nuanced evidence of ecologically unequal exchange relationships between high-income countries and non-high-income countries in plastic waste trade. The results also indicate that higher plastic waste import is associated with greater economic development in non-high-income countries. This research advances our understanding of the theory of ecologically unequal exchange in the context of international trade in plastic waste.


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How to Cite

Bai, Y., & Givens, J. (2021). Ecologically Unequal Exchange of Plastic Waste? A Longitudinal Analysis of International Trade in Plastic Waste. Journal of World-Systems Research, 27(1), 265–287.