Environmental Justice and Global Value: How Media Frame Transnational Waste Flow Issue Differently


Transnational waste transfer is an important issue of global environmental justice. For a long time, waste-exporting countries, mainly developed countries, have transported waste to developing countries, forming a global trade chain for waste flows. It seems to be a “win-win” situation for developing countries to import and recycle waste from developed countries: developing countries have access to cheap resources, developed countries have made money and protected their own environment.

However, the environmental burden of waste is unfairly borne by the importers in developing countries, with many people losing their health, life and the living environment. Once the world’s largest importer of waste, China issued a comprehensive ban on importing waste in 2017 to ease the environmental burden. The ban raised great concerns of the exporters and accelerated the garbage siege in these countries, as signified by media. Media’s coverage of the issue is worth of exploration not only because it reveals the exist and changing attitude towards the waste flow, but also shapes public opinion and solution in responding to the waste crisis worldwide.

To examine media discourses on transnational waste transfer after the ban, this study analyzed reports from mainstream media in various countries, including not only waste importing countries (China and India), but also exporting countries (United States and Australia). The analysis was aimed to answer the following questions: How the media in these countries report the risk and environmental impact of transnational waste? What are the imbedded values and ethics in the media coverage?

This analysis compared two core dimensions of values and ethics-environmental justice and global/local value in media reports. We retrieved reports published by Chinese, Indian, American, and Australian media within one and a half years since the importing waste ban was issued (2017-2019). Methodologically, frame analysis and semantic analysis was used to analyze the discourses and visualize the findings.

Regarding the dimension of environmental justice, the findings showed that the media discourses of waste exporters and importers were completely different: China and India, as waste importers, tended to emphasize environmental justice and interpret international waste flow as a risk and environmental burden, and a hazardous substance dumped by developed countries. The media of the waste exporters-United States and Australia, however, remained to focus on the economic opportunities and regenerative value of waste.

Regarding the dimension of global/local value, the study found that coverage of the US and Australian media was significantly based on local values. It raised concern that the ban would reshape the global industrial chain and may cause garbage problem, but rarely mentioned about the pollution of waste to importing countries. Comparatively, India and China’s report presented more global values. For example, Indian media criticized the unbalanced waste flow from global south to north.

The divide of media discourse--between environmental justice and economic development, and between global and local values--signifies the conflicting standpoints around environmental risk issues in the era of globalization. Whether a consensus of justice and global value could be reached depends on more inclusive and reciprocal communication.