In a sign of the times, The Philippines has sent back 1,500 tons of trash back to Canada, after a prolonged diplomatic spat that saw President Rodrigo Duterte threaten to "sail to Canada and dump their garbage there".
The Philippines says the rubbish was falsely labeled as plastic recycling when it was sent to Manila in 2014 and that in order to end the issue, the Canadian government has agreed to cover the full cost of its transfer and disposal.
But this is only the latest development in the “trash wars” that have seen China ban most trash from the Europe and the United States and which is now being followed by the Philippines and Malaysia.
For more than 1-year, containers of trash from the “developed world” have gathered in Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam. But now, these Asian countries are pushing back and saying that even if economically valuable, the disposal of the worlds trash is hurting the environment of their countries and the health of their citizens.
In the Philippines, president Rodrigo Duterte, had threatened to sever diplomatic ties with Canada if the government did not agree to take back 69 containers containing 1,500 tons of waste that had been exported to the Philippines in 2013 and 2014. Canada had refused to even acknowledge the issue for years but as the dispute escalated, Duterte declared that if the government did not act quickly, the Philippines would tow the rubbish to Canadian waters and dump it there.
The rhetoric from President Duterte was a result of a regional pushback that began in 2018 when Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam all introduced legislation to prevent contaminated foreign waste coming into their ports.
In April, the Malaysian government reported the results of an investigation that revealed that waste from Australia, Germany, the United Kingdom and the United States was being sent to the illegally and falsely declared as other imports.
Last week, Yeo Bee Yin, Malaysia’s Environment Minister said that “Malaysia will not be the dumping ground of the world. We will send back [the waste] to the original countries.”
Yeo has been true to her word and five containers of illegal rubbish from Spain, which were discovered at a Malaysian port were sent back to Spain last week. Yeo also announced that 3,000 tons of illegally imported plastic waste from Australia, Canada, France, Japan, the UK and the US world be returned to those countries immediately.
A growing number of citizens across Southeast Asia believe that the only way to force other countries, especially those in the west to confront their own waste problems will be to ban their waste.
Mageswari Sangaralingam, Research officer at Consumers Association of Penang and Friends of the Earth Malaysia said significant amounts of plastic waste coming into Malaysia was “contaminated, mixed and low grade” which meant it could not be processed and has ended up in vast toxic waste dumps and that “It is the right move by the Malaysian government, to show to the world that we are serious in protecting our borders from becoming a dumping ground.”
Southeast Asia’s “waste problem” began in 2018 after China stopped accepting plastic waste and recycling from the rest of the world. In 2016, China processed at least half of the world’s exports of plastic, paper and metals, and after China’s ban became effective, private companies handling waste looked at Southeast Asia as their new dumping grounds.
According to Greenpeace, imports of plastic waste to Malaysia increased from 168,500 tons in 2016 to 456,000 tons in the first half of 2018, with most of the waste coming from Australia, France, Germany, the UK and the US.
In recognition of the damage being done, the Basel Convention, a multilateral agreement about the handling of waste globally, was amended in May to prohibit unrecyclable and contaminated plastic waste being imported into developing countries without their consent. However, this new agreement will not come into effect until 2020, and not all Southeast Asian countries have agreed to the ban.
Even though governments across the region are trying to address the problem, the trash from the developed countries continues. In the Philippines, municipal garbage from Australia that was falsely labeled as “fuel” was recently discovered and in Indonesia 60 containers of hazardous and toxic waste have been sitting in a port since the beginning of this year.