MANILA – Both the Philippines’ government and large swathes of the country’s civil society are up in arms about the ongoing problem of unwanted waste being shipped in containers to the Asian archipelago’s coasts amid an ongoing “garbage war” with Canada that has created a serious diplomatic rift between the two nations.
The discovery of even more non-recyclable waste containers arriving from Australia and Hong Kong into their ports has strengthened the conviction among Filipinos that they cannot allow their country to become the First World’s trash dump.
“Those who are taking advantage of our country’s weak import controls and inadequately enforced regulations are the waste shippers, brokers and so-called recyclers,” Aileen Lucero, the national coordinator of EcoWaste – a coalition of around 100 organizations advocating for a reduction in waste generation –, told EFE. “They are the ones benefiting from this waste trade.”
“Unfortunately, we do not have the necessary waste import data for now,” Lucero added. “This is something that we need to look into as we pursue our campaign to ban waste imports into the country.”
She said that the people that suffered the most from the impact of this waste trade were the workers who had to deal with contaminated and poorly-segregated or mixed-residue imports and the impoverished communities that are actually saddled with the tons of refuse and whose members rummage through the insalubrious heaps of garbage in an attempt to salvage anything recyclable.
“With respect to the Canadian waste shipments, we can say with full certainty that national and international laws were violated, specifically the Republic Act 6969 and relevant regulations that prohibit the importation of heterogeneous and unsorted plastic materials and require the regulated import of plastics to contain no traces of toxic materials,” Lucero said.
The 100 containers sent from Canada six years ago included electronic waste material, used diapers and plastic bottles.
Following more than a month of intense pressure exerted by the administration of President Rodrigo Duterte, the Canadian government agreed last week to take over the costs for the repatriation of its waste, some 2,450 tons of garbage that had arrived to the Philippines between 2013-14.
Now, 69 containers that had been docked at the ports of Subic and Manila are heading back to Vancouver via China, an operation that will cost Canada’s treasury more than $190,000.
Ottawa ignored Manila’s repeated diplomatic protests for years by claiming the waste shipments were a private transaction conducted by the company Chronic Plastics, which led Duterte to toughen his tone and even threaten the North American country with war last month.
“I will declare war against them,” Duterte said in a televised meeting with local officials on April 23.
“I will advise Canada that your garbage is on the way. Prepare a grand reception. Eat it if you want to,” he added. “Your garbage is coming home.”
Though it did not spark an armed conflict, the spat between the two nations saw a rapid escalation in tensions, with the Philippines recalling its ambassador in Ottawa, withdrawing a large portion of its diplomatic staff and banning senior officials from traveling to Canada. The return of the 69 containers is expected to dampen those diplomatic flames.
It was not only the government that went on the offensive: hundreds of protesters gathered in front of the Canadian embassy in Manila on several occasions over the past month to demand that Ottawa take responsibility for its own garbage.
However, it isn’t just Canadian waste that is rotting on the Philippines’ shores: in the past few weeks, nine containers from Australia and one from Hong Kong have been found at the southern port of Misamis, which are believed to be the first batch of a 70-container shipment of electronic waste material.
For the past year, that same port has also hosted 6,500 tons of waste from South Korea, whose government has vowed to take it all back following the heated dispute between Duterte and Canada.
China, which now exports its own waste, banned the import of non-recyclable residues into its territory at the end of last year, dubbing this form of trade “toxic colonialism.”
“The trash in Misamis Oriental is unacceptable, reprehensible and deplorable,” said the director of environmentalist giant Greenpeace in the Philippines, Abigail Aguilar, in a statement released last week.
“Why do we need to repeatedly remind the world that we are not a garbage dump? Illegal waste dumping to developing countries should be stopped at all costs,” she added. “We refuse to be treated as rich countries’ trash dumps.”
“For Australia, South Korea, Canada, and many other developed countries that see Southeast Asian countries as trash bins, know that now is the time to reduce your waste,” Aguilar said. “Recycling is a myth that has failed you as much as it failed developing countries like ours. Your waste has no place in our country, and we Filipinos will never accept your trash.”
The Philippines is far from the only country in the region that has declared war on imported waste.
Malaysia, for example, recently announced it would repatriate 3,000 tons of refuse to countries such as the United States, China, Australia and Japan.
Last month, Malaysia already sent back five waste containers to Spain, the first action of this kind that appears to have set an important precedent when it comes to returning illegally-imported waste shipments to their countries of origin.