Rich countries with good recycling infrastructure hold Southeast Asia responsible for plastic waste polluting the sea. A fact-check shows that's not fair.

It's an instinct we reach for when told we've messed up: blame. But when it comes to plastics that sully oceans — killing fish and potentially poisoning food chains — it's hard to say where we should point fingers.

Richer countries tend to waste more plastic than poorer ones. Germans and Americans throw away more than 10 times as much plastic a day as Kenyans and Indians. Europe, North America, Japan and Australia have shipped so much to Southeast Asia for recycling that, overwhelmed by waste, Malaysia and Vietnam decided this year to ban plastic waste imports. China had already done so in 2018.

But the few studies to estimate ocean plastic pollution suggest a handful of Asian countries are disproportionately responsible. A study by the Helmholtz Center for Environmental Research, in Germany, has been cited as saying that most ocean plastic comes from 10 rivers in Asia and Africa. Another study, by the Jambeck Research Group at the University of Georgia, found that mismanaged plastic waste — the sort likely to land in oceans — would barely decrease if Europe and North America cut out all plastic.

So, whose fault is ocean plastic. And does it matter?

Trading waste

When China banned imports of most plastic waste in 2018, the world's recycling system went into shock. China had previously been the world's biggest importer of plastic waste. With nowhere for Western waste to go, the price crashed, and companies in Southeast Asia started buying it up to recycle it for a profit. But unprepared for the quantities coming in, and without the plants to process it, governments have increasingly cracked down.

Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines have in the last two months sent back dozens of containers of supposedly recyclable plastic to Europe and North America. In many cases the plastic was contaminated with other waste such as diapers and electronics. Several countries in Southeast Asia have banned plastic waste imports or revoked import permits.

Law says she is working to reevaluate the contributions of the US by looking closer at illegal dumping and waste exports.

It is unclear how much traded plastic ends up in the ocean. Between 2010 and 2016, when China was seen as the "world's dumping ground," it imported just a tenth of its plastic waste. Most waste stays where it was made, said Arnaud Brunet, director general of the Bureau of International Recycling in Brussels.