On the last day of May, the Philippines finally bid farewell to an estimated 1,500 tons of Canadian garbage that had been languishing in Subic Bay for six years.
As many as 103 containers — illegally dumped here by an Ontario company between 2013-14 — had been filled not with the promised recyclables, but hazardous waste, including used adult diapers. The issue sparked a diplomatic row between Canada and the Philippines that led the latter to recall its diplomats.
Three days after the Canadian garbage was returned, trash from Hong Kong that was dumped at the Mindanao Container Terminal in Cagayan de Oro City on Feb. 2 was returned to sender as well. That included 25 tons of plastic and electronic waste.
But Canada and Hong Kong aren’t the only places that have tried to dump their trash in the Philippines; they’re simply part of a trend of powerful countries moving their garbage to developing nations that have lower environmental standards.
Patrick Cristobal, a senior environmental management specialist for hazardous waste at the Department of Environment and Natural Resources told Coconuts Manila last month that Japan, South Korea, and Australia have also dumped their trash in the Philippines.
At least 122 containers of hospital and household waste were shipped from Japan to the Philippines in July 1999. But after anger erupted among Filipinos as news of the shipment disseminated, the Japanese government beat a hasty retreat, hiring a ship to return them to Japan before the end of that year.
Misdeclared garbage shipments from South Korea were discovered this past October. Part of the waste was shipped back in January, but the remaining 5,177 metric tons of waste — including dextrose tubes, soiled diapers, batteries, bulbs, and electronic equipment — are still awaiting repatriation.
That wasn’t the first time South Korea dumped garbage in the country. In February 2017, some 5,000 metric tons of mixed waste were misdeclared as solid granular particles of wood chips and synthetic resin. That was subsequently shipped back to South Korea upon the order of the Philippines’ Bureau of Customs.
In May, seven 40-foot containers carrying Australian municipal waste — everyday items that are consumed and discarded — were improperly declared as “processed engineered fuel” when they were shipped to Mindanao. The Philippine government now wants to ship those back as well.
Why the Philippines?
Greenpeace Philippines country director Lea Guerrero recently told Coconuts Manila via email that developing countries are the preferred destination for waste shipments because most have weaker regulations and environmental standards than developed countries.
“After China closed its doors to waste, shipments were diverted to neighboring countries in Southeast Asia,” she said.
China, formerly the world’s biggest importer of plastic trash, closed its doors to waste importation in January 2018. Since then, Southeast Asian countries have increasingly become the destination for waste exports from developed countries.
Guerrero explained that under the Basel Convention, which was ratified in the Philippines in 1994, waste shipments from countries that export waste must first obtain consent from the receiving country to discourage the shifting of waste from country to country. However, consent is not necessary if the shipments are labeled as “for recycling.”
“This is a loophole that a lot of waste shipments use,” Guerrero said.
That loophole, she said, makes it “highly probable” that many more waste shipments have entered the country undetected or “under false declarations or questionable circumstances.”
Greenpeace and other environmental groups are now calling on the Philippine government to ratify an amendment to the Basel Convention, which seeks to close that loophole. The Basel Ban Amendment, first introduced in 1995, prohibits the export of hazardous waste from developed to developing countries entirely, even for recycling purposes.
The Philippines’ ratification of the ban — languishing for 24 years now — can’t come soon enough for alarmed environmental activists.
“Why do we need to repeatedly remind the world that we are not a garbage dump?” Abigail Aguilar, Greenpeace Philippines campaigner said in a statement late last month.
“Illegal waste dumping to developing countries should be stopped at all costs. We refuse to be treated as rich countries’ trash dumps.”
A symptom of a larger problem
The international waste trade is only a symptom of a larger waste problem in the Philippines, Guerrero said.
“Any waste, whether imported waste or domestically generated waste, produces environmental pollution.”
About 300 million tons of plastic are produced globally every year, a United Nations Environment Program status report said, and much of it ends up in landfills or the seas.
The Philippines contributes far more than its fair share to this, being one of just five countries that account for roughly half the plastic waste that ends up in oceans.
“The world has produced too much waste and continues to produce waste like single-use plastics and sachets and packaging in massive amounts,” Guerrero said.
Greenpeace believes that the best solution to the problem is waste reduction and not recycling.
“The world has to produce a lot less plastic than it is producing now. Recycling is not the answer — especially since only 9 percent of the eight million tons of plastic ever produced has ever been recycled,” Guerrero said.
About 12 percent of plastic waste has been incinerated, while the rest — 79 percent — has accumulated in landfills, dumps or the natural environment.
Some local government units in the Philippines have instituted bans on single-use plastics, while others are implementing zero-waste programs but Guerrero said that businesses must take the initiative as well.
“We need to ramp up redesign of packaging and enable alternative delivery systems for goods,” Guerrero said.
The Philippines is not the only country in the region that has been used as a dumping site by developed countries. In May, Malaysia announced that it would also repatriate 3,000 tons of plastic waste to countries including Bangladesh, the United States, Japan, France, Canada, Australia, and the United Kingdom.
In June 2018, the Thai government issued a temporary order to prohibit imports of electronic and plastic waste while in July of the same year, both Malaysia and Vietnam attempted to prohibit waste imports by suspending the issue of licenses.