“Cambodia is not a dumpster for foreign countries to dispose of out-of-date e-waste, and the government opposes the import of plastic waste and lubricants to be recycled in this country,” declared Cambodian Ministry of Environment spokesman Neth Pheaktra a day after 83 shipping containers carrying garbage were seized by customs at the Sihanoukville Port on July 16. He said 70 of the containers were shipped from the U.S. and 13 from Canada. A government committee has been established to investigate how and why these containers ended up in Cambodia, and any individual or company found to be involved in transporting the refuse would be fined and charged, the spokesperson added.
According to a Cambodian customs official, the containers found full of plastic waste were nominally imported as recyclables.
After China banned solid waste imports in January 2018, many developed countries have started sending their garbage to ASEAN member states.
Rejecting Foreign Garbage
Foreign garbage refers primarily to solid waste, especially banned solid waste smuggled into the developing countries. For decades, the developing world has been the destination of international trash as industrialized nations sought cheap disposal options. Some types of such garbage are recyclable materials with an economic value. After treatment, they can be recycled into secondary raw materials. A considerable amount of the imported solid waste, however, is worthless and must be disposed of through incineration or in a landfill, resulting in incalculable damage to the environment and public health in receiving countries.
With an aim to protect the environmental rights of developing countries, the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and Their Disposal was adopted in the late 1980s, recognizing that all countries have the right to prohibit foreign hazardous and other waste from entering their territories.
On the morning of May 31, a cargo ship carrying 69 containers of garbage left the Port of Subic Bay, the Philippines, bound for Canada, ending a six-year dispute between the two countries over the illegally dumped waste. Canada will pay for the shipment of over 1,500 tons of refuse, British daily newspaper The Guardian reported.
The Philippines is among a growing number of Southeast Asian nations that have started rejecting foreign garbage. Malaysian environment minister Yeo Bee Yin announced on May 28 that Malaysia would be returning 3,000 tons of non-recyclable waste from countries including Japan, Britain, Saudi Arabia, Canada, Australia and the U.S., according to Singapore-based newspaper Lianhe Zaobao. These imports were disguised as recyclable waste with fake declaration documents.
It has been reported that currently over a quarter of the world’s plastic waste ends up in ASEAN countries. Malaysia’s imports of such waste increased from 168,500 tons in 2016 to 456,000 tons in the first half of 2018, according to Greenpeace, a non-governmental environmental organization.
The escalation of illegal dumping of toxic waste in Southeast Asia has resulted in contamination of water and soil and posed a grave threat to public health. Before the ASEAN Summit in Bangkok this June, a group of protesters gathered at a government building in the city to call on ASEAN member states to ban garbage imports “from anywhere in the world.”
“Environmental rights are an important aspect of national sovereignty as is environmental diplomacy to a country’s foreign relations,” noted Tan Quanyin, an assistant research fellow at the School of Environment of Tsinghua University and director of the General Office of Basel Convention Regional Center for Asia and the Pacific.
“Rising costs of domestic waste disposal led industrialized nations to ship hazardous waste to the developing world, where environmental regulations and enforcement mechanisms were lacking and the labor costs were lower,” Tan explained. “When transporting toxic waste to the developing countries, they would falsely claim the shipments were outdated products or raw materials because it’s often impossible for customs to check every shipment thoroughly.”
Legislation against foreign garbage has already been adopted in several Southeast Asian countries. The Thai government decided to prohibit the import of plastic waste by 2021. Indonesia introduced new regulations to terminate importing certain types of plastic waste from Western states. The government of Vietnam announced in July last year that no more licenses for garbage importing would be issued.
Global Governance Needed
According to the World Bank, developed countries, home to 16 percent of the world’s population, produce 34 percent of the world’s garbage. Shipping solid waste abroad for processing and recycling, though profitable for a small portion of businesses, has shifted huge social and environmental costs of waste disposal to the developing world.
Now, 37 percent of the world’s solid waste ends up in landfills, 33 percent in open-air dumpsites and 11 percent in incinerators. The U.S. recycles two thirds of its aluminum cans, and only 10 percent of its plastic waste is reclaimed within the country. The United Nations statistics show that in 2018, Germany, the U.S. and Japan exported more than 1 million tons of plastic waste respectively and a total of 157,000 shipping containers filled with plastic waste were transported from the U.S. to developing nations. Against this background, the developing world has started appealing for global governance on solid waste disposal.
“We urge developed nations to review their management of plastic waste and stop shipping garbage to developing countries because such practices are unfair and uncivilized,” said Yeo, whose concerns are echoed by other countries in Southeast Asia.
“The industrialized world shows no sense of responsibility when dumping garbage on developing nations,” opined Xu Liping, a research fellow with the National Institute of International Strategy at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. “In the short term, Southeast Asian countries will remain incapable of disposing of substantial amounts of solid waste through methods other than burning and burying. With a fragile ecological environment already threatened by marine debris and wastewater, the influx of imported solid waste in the region will worsen the situation or even lead to destructive environmental damage, which will in turn harm the overall development of these countries.”
Xu believes that solid waste disposal is a global concern that can only be solved at the source. “Developing nations should invest more in the research and development of waste recycling technologies,” he suggested.