Waste importation: An exploitative trade and how we can end it

Green Voices

THE global waste trade, like any economic endeavor, is a numbers game, and unfortunately, those numbers are against the Philippines and other developing countries, which find themselves on the losing end of a billion-dollar industry. This game has always been skewed to be advantageous for Global North countries with the Global South paying a hefty price. It's not just money in the form of waste handling expenses, but consequences like environmental degradation, toxic contamination and the deteriorating health of affected communities.

An entire system of inequitable trade has been exploiting the developing world for decades, taking advantage of poor safety standards, cheap costs, loose laws around hazardous waste, and even looser environmental regulations. The destructive combination of these elements makes developing countries an alluring destination richer nations' waste.

As in any unjust trade system, wealthier states abuse the economic hopes of poorer nations. The industry's shift from mere waste disposal to a thriving economy that includes resource extraction and alternative fuels has made waste trade too lucrative to resist. Developed nations promote trade with its promises of profit and mutual benefits, but in reality, there are no fair bargains in waste trade. The recipient of imported garbage always comes out the loser.

What starts as a cluster of commercial agreements eventually becomes economic dependence. More and more infrastructure and business are built around this unfair trade -- from cement kilns to facilities handling waste -- to the point that a significant number of industrial endeavors rely solely on imported waste. It's ironic how these businesses depend on waste from other countries via a system that incentivizes creating more waste, when we have a domestic issue of having too much trash.

Irony aside, this is a serious problem because local companies and exporting nations fail to see that trading trash is costing poor countries in so many other ways. Or is it that they refuse to see the consequences of their activities? The fact is, the impacts are glaringly obvious and they've been around for as long as the industry has.

Numerous cases of waste trade have led to developing countries shouldering negative externalities they are ill-prepared for. Economists define externalities as a cost or benefit from an activity incurred by an unrelated third party. In the case of waste trade, developing countries and their communities definitely didn't bargain for the negative impacts.

Here in the Philippines, Mindanao citizens contributed nearly P10 million to handle waste to be shipped back to South Korea. There are also multiple incidents in the Global South of intercepted hazardous and non-recyclable waste with little or no economic value finding their way to local landfills, becoming a municipal problem. Data from 2012 showed that local governments in the National Capital Region spent P4.221 billion (approximately $80.7 million) for waste management that year. Adding foreign waste to already high volumes of domestic waste, which result in a costly and strained waste management system, does not make fiscal sense for a developing country.

People also suffer. With poor safety and health regulations and the prevalent involvement of the informal sector, shipped waste exposes waste workers to potential toxins. Communities are also exposed when toxic runoff or improperly managed waste that's burned contaminates the surrounding environment, which these communities rely on for food and their income.

Ensuing contamination leads to ecosystem degradation and threats to wildlife. Some toxins accumulate in the environment for years for people and animals to absorb through the food chain. Once it reaches our seas, pollution can disrupt reefs' development and ecological functions, speed up algae growth and ruin habitats for fish. On land, pollution affects the soil and crops.

It's clear that waste trade must be stopped. The good news is that it can be, with the right policies and their strict implementation. One example is the Basel Convention Ban Amendment which entered into force on December 5, 2019. More countries have tightened restrictions and placed bans on waste imports. Countries like China, traditionally the destination of scrap waste, have now enforced very strict restrictions and will ban all solid waste imports from January 1, 2021. Local laws that put in place a comprehensive ban on all waste imports are likewise crucial.

Unfortunately, the Philippines is far behind in stopping waste trade: the Ban Amendment remains unratified, and a comprehensive waste importation ban is still far from reality. Until these two are acted upon and strictly implemented, the country will not escape the vicious cycle of this unjust trade system and its resulting pollution. (Marian Ledesma)


Marian Ledesma is Zero Waste Campaigner of Greenpeace Philippines


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