This story was produced in collaboration with Columbia Journalism Investigations and UOL. It was republished in partnership with Mother Jones.
A green squeegee. A plastic bottle half-filled with neon yellow liquid. Used geriatric diapers. Latex gloves. Surgical masks. All of these items reached Brazil from ports along the East Coast of the United States, arriving in shipping containers stuffed with moldy cardboard meant for recycling.
“This import is forbidden,” said a July 26, 2021, message sent through the Brazilian environmental agency’s internal communication system to its main office in São Paulo. The message referred to a series of shipments destined for a local paper manufacturer and featured pictures of the debris. In one photograph, the smiling face of Mike Lindell, a prominent Trump supporter and conspiracy theorist in the US, was printed on a package that once contained two pillows. By August 2021, authorities at the nearby Port of Santos were seizing 48 containers of the American household trash and cardboard mixture.
Countries like Brazil impose strict controls on the import and export of such waste. Ibama, the Brazilian Institute of Environment and Renewable Natural Resources, whose primary responsibility is enforcing environmental regulations, is now investigating the Brazilian importing company for illegal trafficking of hazardous waste. But not regulators in the US, where the federal government has yet to ratify an international agreement limiting the transboundary trade of harmful debris. Here, the US Environmental Protection Agency does not include household waste among its hazardous waste regulations. Nor are there rules requiring American exporters to take back containers rejected by other countries. As a result, those countries are left with the burden of disposal.
Without these measures, said Jim Puckett, founder of the Seattle-based environmental group Basel Action Network, “people can export in this country with impunity.”
Brazil has become just the latest destination for shipping waste. Throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, shipments of used paper waste to that country have soared from the combined effect of increased demand for packaged products and the disruption of the collection of recyclables from households.
Other countries already serve as a cautionary tale for the consequences of America’s loose rules over the movement of waste overseas. In Indonesia in recent years, streams of paper debris from the US and other Western countries have intensified after China banned these imports in 2018. Enormous open-air dumpsites have emerged in villages next door to Indonesian paper mills, and local activists there blame the sites for environmental degradation, such as water pollution and seafood contamination.
Lenient regulation on these exports can result in waste hop-skipping from one country to the next, lessening its chances of a return to the US In 2019 in Indonesia’s second-largest port city, Surabaya, authorities seized 58 containers of paper scrap mixed with plastic and other hazardous materials exported by American companies. Indonesian law mandates the return of these containers to the exporter, but 46 of them went to India, Thailand, South Korea, and Vietnam instead.
The situation often amounts to what Indonesian activist Yuyun Ismawati called, in a statement at the time, “a global waste shell game.”
The suspicious containers seized in Santos departed from ports in Boston, Charleston, and Baltimore, some stopping in Panama before reaching their final destination about one month later.
Once in Brazil, officers from Ibama and the Federal Revenue of Brazil—the equivalent of the US Internal Revenue Service—found various types of plastics and potentially hazardous materials, including disposable plates, cans of energy drinks, used clothes, and charging cables, mixed with cardboard imported for recycling, as Ibama described in a report. The presence of masks and gloves also sparked concern among some Ibama authorities over the possible spread of Covid-19 variants.
These findings especially alarmed Ana Angelica Alabarce, Ibama’s chief officer in the area. “There is no way this thing is entering our country,” she said during an interview on the YouTube channel, Porto360. “This doesn’t belong to our country. No way.”
The containers had been declared under the customs code used for recyclable paper scrap and cardboard, which does not require prior authorization for shipping. However, Ibama questioned the categorization of this material because waste from American households is not allowed in shipments of material categorized under this code. Instead, the agency stated that the material should have been classified as “urban solid waste,” which, by law, Brazilian companies are banned from importing.
Brazilian industry guidelines do allow a limited presence of contaminants, which can be as much as 3% of impurities—anything that is non-recyclable—and 1% of prohibitive materials, including any material that would make the paper bale unusable. The importing company claims these limits have been respected, though according to Ibama, they are domestic guidelines and should not apply to imported recyclables.
A team from Brazil’s National Health Surveillance Agency, Anvisa, wrote in an inspection report that the presence of “plastic waste, surgical gloves, medication packs (blister) along with the leaflet, used cleaning cloths and various food packaging, including aluminum cans, mixed in the packages” signaled that the US-based exporter “did not carry out the correct segregation of waste.”
The discovery of garbage in the containers led the Federal Revenue of Brazil to issue a national notice to all its posts in the country’s ports to locate other containers with similar material, according to internal Ibama sources.
Last September, Ibama fined the importing company—a packaging producer called Jaepel Papéis e Embalagens —the equivalent of more than $8 million US dollars at the time of publishing, the highest fine imposed by the agency since 2010, for “illegal traffic of hazardous and other waste.”
Asked to comment on the case in December 2021, Jaepel declined to speak with UOL journalists. In an email from its press office, the company stated, “Thank you for contacting us. We are sorry that we cannot help you with your investigation. We do not have information about your demand.”
On a trip to the company’s headquarters in Senador Canedo, a town just outside of Brazil’s capital, Brasilia, one of its main directors, Marco Aurélio Cardoso, said he was unaware of the matter. UOL journalists pressed Cardoso about the presence of garbage in the imported paper.
“I would like to speak with you later. There is no garbage,” he replied. Told of the photographs and videos showing the garbage, he rolled up the car window and left.
Cardoso said he would contact reporters to arrange an interview, but never did.
Although the US is a major producer and exporter of waste, the industry is largely unregulated. Unlike Brazil, the US remains one of the few countries globally—along with South Sudan—that has not ratified the Basel Convention, an international agreement aimed at preventing the trade of harmful debris from polluting the environment. The Basel Convention includes household trash among the “other waste” category that requires prior consent by authorities in the importing country before exporting it. Ibama was not notified of the import before its arrival in Santos.
“The US does not condone the illegal export of waste to Brazil,” an EPA spokesperson wrote in an email. But “there are no US federal export or import requirements…for the transboundary shipment of medical waste or infectious waste of the type recently seized in Santos.”
Puckett, the Seattle environmentalist who advocates against the global trade of harmful waste, criticized the federal government’s non-membership in the Basel Convention as “completely unacceptable and immoral.”
As the case in Brazil exemplifies, the US’s refusal to sign that agreement means governments in Latin America are forced to take on the difficult task of detecting and preventing imports of mixed waste. This is true especially when the material is “disguised as recyclable materials such as paper,” according to Neil Tangri, of the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives, a worldwide network of environmental nonprofit groups.
In a WhatsApp message, Tangri called the Brazil case “extremely worrying.” As he explained, “The arrival of mixed waste, even with hospital waste that must have a totally different management from municipal waste, means an even greater risk.”
At least 48 of the seized containers were exported by CellMark Inc., an international trader of paper scrap headquartered in Sweden with 30 partner facilities across the US In 2020, one trade publication ranked the company as the third-largest exporter in this country.
Last November, Columbia Journalism Investigations reporters visited Cellmark’s office in South Norwalk, Connecticut, where the head of its recycling division, Jimmy Derrico, works. He declined to comment, as did other employees. After business hours, CJI reporters spoke with Derrico at a nearby restaurant, where he suggested that litigation was coming. He said he did not want to answer questions about the shipments and did not elaborate on the nature or origin of the lawsuit.
The company did not respond to CJI’s numerous phone calls, text messages, and email messages seeking comment for this story. Nor did it respond to written questions sent by email and postal mail. In its code of conduct, the company states that “we comply with all environmental regulations in the jurisdictions we operate.”
Without the US’s membership in the Basel Convention, CellMark has no legal obligation to receive the containers if Brazilian authorities were to ship them back, as required by law. The material will instead be incinerated in a licensed facility supervised by Ibama officials, an agency spokesperson said.
Despite the lack of US regulation of this material, a spokesperson from Homeland Security Investigations, the unit of the US Department of Homeland Security charged with investigating international crime, confirmed that the case has been referred to it. The unit declined to comment further, citing the ongoing investigation.
Ibama officials have also questioned other unchecked containers imported by Jaepel and exported by CellMark. Since January 2021, the Brazilian company imported about 250 containers of paper scrap—more than any other year since 2014, international shipping data shows.
In the Brazilian legal documentation about the case, obtained via a records request in Brazil, Jaepel’s lawyers explained that these shipments became necessary due to disruption in the supply of paper scrap from commercial and industrial sites and the diminished collection of recyclables during the coronavirus pandemic.
Jaepel “is not part of any movement or organization focused on circumventing the legislation,” the lawyer wrote in a letter to the judge. “There is data to demonstrate that importation appears as the only alternative capable of maintaining production in the exceptional context of the pandemic and in the face of the obstacles imposed in the domestic market.”
In 2021, companies in the US exported about 12 times the amount of paper scrap to Brazil as they did in 2019, according to the latest trade data published by the United Nations. Part of this increase was driven by higher demand for packaging from online retailers, a phenomenon sometimes referred to as the “Amazon effect.”
In a press release, Empapel, the Brazilian Paper Packaging Association, stated that internet sales grew from about 6% of online retail before March 2020 to almost 70% by the end of the year “due to social isolation and changes in the Covid-19 pandemic.”
A widely used market analysis organization, Fastmarkets RISI, also showed an increase in cardboard prices. In southeastern Brazil, a ton of used cardboard cost the equivalent of about $140 in July 2020. But by May 2021, this price had more than doubled, reaching about $350.
“The Covid-19 pandemic and e-commerce lowered the paper recycling efficiency,” Hanna Zhao, Fastmarkets RISI’s senior economist on recovered paper replied through email. “Therefore, Brazilian paper packaging mills started to import large amounts of recovered paper, mainly from the US, to meet their fiber demand, at the end of 2020.”
Since industry guidelines do not reflect Brazil’s current regulations, local authorities now have to grapple with the challenge of detecting containers that violate these laws amid the influx of recyclable paper scrap imports.
Tangri, of the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives, criticized US companies for exporting mixed waste to Latin America. “There is no justification for a highly waste-generating country, instead of taking charge of its own problem, to transfer it to other territories,” he wrote.
Marco Dalla Stella, Mathilde Berg Utzon, and Sheridan Wall are reporting fellows for the Cross Border Data Project at Columbia Journalism Investigations, an investigative reporting unit at the Columbia Journalism School. Giannina Segini is the project director. Rubens Valente is an investigative reporter for the Brazilian newspaper UOL.
Luiz Fernando Toledo, a current student at Columbia Journalism School, contributed to this article.