Fri, May 31, 2019 - Page 9 News List

Treated like trash: Asians vow to return mountains
of garbage from West

Southeast Asia has begun to push back against a deluge of plastic and electronic waste from the UK, the US and Australia

By Hannah Ellis-Petersen  /  The Guardian

Illustration: Mountain People

For the past year, the waste of the world has been gathering on the shores of Southeast Asia. Crates of unwanted trash from the West have accumulated in the ports of the Philippines, Indonesia and Vietnam, while vast toxic wastelands of plastics imported from Europe and the US have built up across Malaysia.

Not for much longer it seems. A pushback is beginning, as nations across Southeast Asia vow to send the garbage back to where it came from.

Last week, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte threatened to sever diplomatic ties with Canada if it did not agree to take back 69 containers containing 1,500 tonnes 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 said that if the government did not act quickly, the Philippines would tow the rubbish to Canadian waters and dump it there.

“The Philippines as an independent sovereign nation must not be treated as trash by a foreign nation,” Philippine presidential spokesman Salvador Panelo said.

The rhetoric was symptomatic of a wider regional pushback that began last year when Thailand, Malaysia and Vietnam introduced legislation to prevent contaminated foreign waste coming into their ports.

On April 23, a Malaysian government investigation revealed that waste from the UK, Australia, the US and Germany was pouring into the country illegally, falsely declared as other imports.

Enough was enough, Malaysian Minister of Energy, Technology, Science and Environment Yeo Bee Yin (楊美盈) said.

“Malaysia will not be the dumping ground of the world. We will send back [the waste] to the original countries,” she said.

She has been as good as her word. Five containers of illegal garbage from Spain discovered at a Malaysian port have just been sent back, and on Tuesday Yeo announced that 3,000 tonnes of illegally imported plastic waste from the UK, the US, Australia, Japan, France and Canada would be returned imminently.

Many believe this is the only way that countries, mainly in the West, will finally be forced to confront their own waste problems, rather than burdening developing countries.

Only 9 percent of the world’s plastics are recycled, with the rest mostly ending up rotting in landfills across Southeast Asia or illegally incinerated, releasing highly poisonous fumes. Campaigners in Indonesia last year found that illegal waste imports were being used as furnace fuel in a tofu factory.

“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,” said Mageswari Sangaralingam, research officer at Consumers Association of Penang and Friends of the Earth Malaysia.

She 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.

The problem began for Southeast Asia early last year after China stopped accepting plastic waste and recycling from the rest of the world due to environmental concerns.

The outright ban was problematic: In 2016, China processed at least half of the world’s exports of plastic, paper and metals, including enough rubbish from the UK to fill 10,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools.

In the wake of China’s ban, private corporations handling waste for national governments began scrambling for other countries to bear the burden. With most of the garbage channeled through Hong Kong, Southeast Asia, which was nearby and had lax regulation, became an attractive alternative destination for the waste.

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