In 1991, former chief economist of the World Bank Lawrence Summers caused a stir when he laid out an argument that the economic logic behind dumping toxic waste in developing countries was “impeccable”. The logic goes that more migration of dirty industries and toxic waste to developing countries should take place because it was cheaper to do so and these countries were “under-polluted”. While the memo was meant to be sarcastic, the logic seems to have been applied seriously today. In particular, Southeast Asia has become known as the world’s dumping ground.

In 2017, China had become the world’s largest importer of recyclables. But when the Chinese government decided to restrict imports of solid waste from overseas, waste exporters began to divert their waste to various countries across Southeast Asia. Within months of the import restrictions, Malaysia had replaced China as the world’s largest importer of plastic scrap. At its peak in March 2018, Malaysia had imported about 139,000 tons of plastic waste per month, up from 22,000 tons per month a year earlier.

The consequences of these actions are not limited to being an eyesore. Incineration of what was supposed to be recycled plastic has led to air pollution and health and respiratory problems in adjacent areas due to smoke. Waterways that were meant to provide clean water are now filled with trash-clogged rivers. Forests that are home to biodiversity are littered with the illegal dumping of hazardous material and plastics.

More directly, the incident on 25 May 2019 at Laem Chabang port in Thailand illustrates how the transport of waste can lead to life threatening situations when a fire, caused by a vessel carrying chemical waste, erupted. More than 130 people were hospitalised due to eyes and throat irritation as well as burning sensations on their skin. Nearby inhabitants had to evacuate as ash rained down on their homes.

Reports attributed the incident to chemicals – calcium hypochlorite and chlorinated paraffin wax – that were not declared.

The danger to human and environmental health and the potential for conflict has led to a serious consideration on whether waste is an emerging security threat. At the minimum, it certainly can – and has – resulted in diplomatic rows.

Most notably, Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte threatened to “declare war” against Canada if they refuse to take back tons of waste that were sent to the Philippines. The Philippines government accused the importers of mislabeling the containers of household waste as plastics for recycling. Amongst others, it resulted in a five-day travel ban of official trips to Canada and the recall of its ambassador to Canada when the 15 May 2019 deadline to retrieve rubbish was missed.

While the rhetoric may suggest that conflict on waste is imminent, a governance perspective on the issue tells a different, and perhaps, less sensational story.

Firstly, while states may raise it as an international issue, much of the waste trade is between private actors. This was Canada’s initial response to the dispute, where it highlighted that the waste in question was a private commercial transaction, which was done without the government’s consent. It was reported that Chronic Inc., from the Canadian province of Ontario, shipped the containers to the Philippines through Chronic Plastics Inc. of Valenzuela City of the Philippines.

Secondly, addressing this challenge is dependent on the strength of local governance on waste. For importing countries, governance of waste trade is often mired by fragmentation with different ministries and agencies responsible for different parts of the cycle.

In the context of Malaysia, for example, the problems begin with plastics being falsely declared at the ports. Customs (under the Ministry of Home Affairs) are responsible for inspection. However, being understaffed, it is able to only inspect 10 percent of all consignments. In terms of storage and operations, licensing for keeping plastics at the premises and recycling operations are issued by Local Councils under the Ministry of Housing and Local Government. Finally, if the waste results in environmental pollution, it is then the responsibility of the Department of Environment, under the Ministry of Energy, Science, Technology, Environment and Climate Change.

Such fragmentation has not only resulted in poor monitoring, but also the exploitation of loopholes by unscrupulous actors.

For the exporting state, domestic laws and regulations will also differ. As the source of the waste, effective enforcement to ensure that waste is properly declared and inspected is critical to avoid a diplomatic row. In the case of the Canada-Philippines dispute, while Canada attributes liability to the industry, a challenge arose as the private firm responsible was no longer in operation. In effect, the local municipality had to pay for retrieving the waste from the Philippines.

This brings us to the third and final point. One of the main reasons Canada agreed to take back the waste from the Philippines was due to the need for the exporting state to seek prior informed consent from the importing state before sending hazardous wastes and “other wastes” (which initially includes household waste and incinerator ash) under the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal. To ensure that countries do not run afoul of international law and treaties, exporting countries, in particular, are required to ensure that their own domestic laws are coherent.

The above demonstrates that ultimately the key issue is to strengthen institutions, both domestically and internationally. Internationally, the move to include plastic waste as “other waste” under the Basel Convention is a step in the right direction. However, the challenge lies in policy coordination and harmonisation at multiple levels and scales.

If good governance and common sense do not prevail, the issue of waste trade can result in endangering the health and lives of importing countries and lead to waste being regarded as a security issue. Unless and until a significant and deliberate incident occurs, it is more likely to be a source of trash talking at worse and international cooperation at best.

This article first appeared in the ISIS Focus 1/2020 No. 10

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