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Why Southeast Asia Is Sending The West’s Trash Home

Just a few months ago, Malaysia’s Port Klang was home to a wide array of trash from around the world. Inside the cargo containers that came to this seaside town lay waste as diverse as cables from the UK, milk cartons from Australia, compact discs from Bangladesh, and heaps more of garbage from countries like the US, Canada, and France. However, on May 28, Malaysian environment minister Yeo Bee Yin stated that Malaysia would ship 3,300 tons of non-recyclable waste back to their countries of origin. Her actions closely followed the dispute between the Philippines and Canada in 2013 and 2014, in which Canada was forced to take back 103 containers of waste that had been delivered to Filipino ports under the false pretenses of being recyclable.

Malaysia’s announcement represents a surge of bans on imported waste in a movement that now includes Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, and Indonesia, in addition to Malaysia and the Philippines. Moreover, Southeast Asia’s protest against the practice of nations dumping garbage inside their borders reflects their anger with rich countries that create most of the world’s emissions but attempt to avoid the consequences. This crusade against foreign dumping should not only promote dialogue and policy change on waste creation and exportation in the developed world, but should also allow for greater examination of Southeast Asia’s own environmental policies.

The developed world has been shipping its trash to Asia since the 1990s, and much of that waste has been taken on by China. The country once processed at least half of the world’s exports of waste plastic, paper, and metals; however, China announced to the World Trade Organization in 2017 that it would begin banning the importations of most of those materials. According to Von Hernandez of Break Free From Plastic, “there was a mass scramble for alternative destinations” for waste, which led to an influx of trash shipments to Southeast Asia. Yeo said these shipments were smuggled into Malaysia, and with a lack of oversight, the trash ended up in illegal sites. According to Time, the waste was “illegally incinerated… and dumped in unregulated landfills” which released poisonous fumes and put local populations at risk of health problems and harmful effects on their crops.

The move to send trash back is a powerful representation of the frustrations many developing countries have with polluting rich nations. Companies from the developed world have exploited Southeast Asia for its lack of environmental regulations which has allowed nearly unlimited dumping in its ports. Lea Guerrero, the Country Director for Greenpeace Philippines, condemned the practice as “deplorable,” – saying “richer nations are shipping their problems down here so they can take advantage of the poor environmental standards.” Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte threatened war against Canada if it did not take back a shipment of waste that has been rotting in the country since at least 2014, and activists who gathered at the containers held banners saying “we are not the world’s dumpsite.”

In recent years, the world has witnessed a rise in the economic and political clout of Southeast Asia. If taken together, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations would be considered the world’s 7th largest economy and the economic zone with the third greatest GDP growth since 2000. The Obama administration recognized this in 2016 when President Obama declared that he would “rebalance our foreign policy and play a larger and long-term role in the Asia Pacific.” As a result, the region has begun to call for greater respect on the world stage. These campaigns against waste, therefore, may be a way to increase sovereignty in international politics rather than a real attempt to embrace environmentally sustainable policies.

In fact, there are some environmental downsides to this movement. The New York Times reported that, due to blanket bans on imported waste, legitimate recyclers in Southeast Asia would not receive the foreign plastic scraps for use in manufacturing, and that returning the trash would “raise the chances that plastic scrap will end up in rivers, oceans, dumps, and illegal burn sites.” Complicating the issue, there are serious environmental crises in the region that have gone unaddressed by the same people criticizing the West. Indonesia is the world’s second-largest contributor to plastic pollution. In September, it saw 2,000 wildfires burn across its forests set by slash-and-burn techniques (a way of clearing forest land by cutting down part of the vegetation and setting fire to the rest) used by pulpwood and palm oil firms. The government has been criticized for not imposing harsher penalties for starting forest fires, and none of the ten palm oil companies most responsible for burning land has faced serious civil or administrative sanctions, and none have lost their licenses from 2015 to 2018. Malaysia’s Yeo is also personally implicated in the controversy surrounding the Indonesian fires: She is facing calls for her resignation after her husband’s palm oil firm, IOI Corporation, was named as a contributor to the fires.

The protests by countries like Malaysia and the Philippines should serve as a wake-up call to both the countries that export trash and Southeast Asia, as the global community must reexamine how mass manufacturing and pollution are affecting the globe.

First and foremost, the heaviest burden to make the change is on the governments of the developed world and their companies, who not only create the most emissions but engage in unfair dumping practices as well. The United States currently ships over one million tons of its waste abroad, essentially exporting the problem of lacking adequate waste management infrastructure to poorer and more vulnerable countries. Yet, Southeast Asia should not have to bear the burden of keeping the West’s trash out of the world’s landfills and oceans. Companies and countries themselves should face the consequences of their own waste. As shipping containers filled with rotting trash are returning to the shores of North America, elected leaders will be forced to find solutions for waste within existing environmental regulations. What national, state, and local governments will soon discover is that it is simply too expensive to continue operating on the basis of ‘business as usual’ practices of waste production. Not only is recycling incredibly costly in the US, but the process of shipping and filling landfills has gotten more expensive due to decreased landfill space and increased demand to fill it. Even more important is anger from US citizens, who are paying more attention than ever to pollution due to climate strike movements from groups like Fridays for the Future and Sunrise.

Secondly, Southeast Asian countries themselves have a role to play in fighting pollution. Instead of just putting effort into headline-grabbing protests against foreign trash, the governments should also use this opportunity to make real change. Simple solutions include implementing regulations that would criminalize dumping trash into the oceans. Currently, China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam dump more plastic into the ocean than the rest of the world combined. Another solution could be developing recycling programs that would only have to manage domestic plastics, which is a possible economic incentive as well.

Finally, individuals bear a moral burden to understand what recycling really is. While many of us think there is no environmental harm done in purchasing a plastic water bottle because it will just be sent to an American factory to be completely recycled, the truth is very different. In 2018, the trash exported by the U.S. went to nations where 70 percent of recycled waste is mismanaged and not reused. Instead, it is likely to end up in an illegal dump like those in Indonesia, where mafia groups threaten civilians into sorting the waste in ineffective and dangerous ways. Changing consumer patterns will ensure that companies are inspired to produce environmentally friendly products.

There is already evidence that Asia’s waste bans are ensuring recyclers in the United States and the EU respond to calls for greater accountability. After China’s ban, American recycling company GDB International, which previously shipped waste to China, said they would stop sending their waste overseas. Last year, the EU passed a law that would make manufacturers pay for the costs of management and clean up of some plastics. California is currently in the process of passing a bill that would phase out single-use plastics by 2030.

The global community, especially its elites, needs to honor the action taken by Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines with policies that will ensure that they not be treated as dumpsites for the world’s unwanted rubbish. In doing so, these nations will become accountable for the environmental problems they have caused, and thus benefit the global ecosystem as a whole. Until then, 200 of the 450 tones of foreign trash remain in Malaysia’s port, waiting to receive justice.

Photo: Image via Carsten ten Brink (Flickr)