How Garbage Nearly Started a War
In April 2019, in an unprecedented move, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte threatened to declare war on Canada. It was ostensibly out of the blue. But the ultimatum he leveled was the latest symptom of a festering problem that had long remained neglected: the politics of garbage.
Back in 2013, Chronic Plastics Inc. had shipped 103 containers of household trash, plastic bottles and bags, newspapers, and used adult diapers misrepresented as recycling from Vancouver to Manila. As early as 2016, a Philippine court ruled that Chronic Plastics must reclaim their waste. The corporation—and Canada—equivocated. Three years and one threat of war later, most of the trash was shipped back to Canada.
While this is one of the more dramatic occurrences, it is hardly the first time a wealthy country has exported exorbitant volumes of trash to developing countries under false pretenses.
A Brief History of the Garbage Industry
As countries develop, they tend to produce more recyclable garbage – the average person in the United States, for example, generates over two kilograms of waste daily. However, disposing of that volume of recycling in a clean manner is both technologically challenging and quite expensive. In the latter half of the 20th century, Asian countries, particularly China, agreed to receive plastic waste at a significantly lower rate than that of building sustainable recycling plants, even in the long term. This relationship functioned for about two decades.
The situation took a turn for the worse in 2018 when China abruptly stopped accepting the brunt of the West’s recyclable trash upon implementing the National Sword policy. This required that all imported trash be 99.5 percent recyclable. Previously, it had been absorbing over 7 million tons of recycling annually—70 percent of the United States’ and 95 percent of the EU’s trash. What could have served as a moment of reflection for the West regarding their lack of waste management facilities quickly morphed into a desperate scramble to find other countries to accept their garbage. With the West unwilling to sort their trash to the extent that it met China’s standard, Southeast Asia became the new dumping ground—namely, Vietnam, Thailand, Indonesia, and Malaysia, where rates of imported garbage rose by 171 percent.
Issues soon arose from this dynamic, primarily due to deliberate ignorance on the part of the developed nations regarding the fate of their waste once it leaves their ports.
Typically, countries accepting the garbage did not have processing facilities superior to those of the West, but rather more lenient laws, less centralized governments, and less oversight. In fact, globally, just 9 percent of recyclable waste is recycled. The vast majority is incinerated, dumped into a water source, or stored in a landfill, all of which are not only bad for the environment but antithetical to the concept of recycling. In spite of the emphasis placed on green waste management in purportedly environmentally-conscious countries, only a meager portion of recyclable goods is actually being repurposed as was intended. The premise of recycling is to send plastics to facilities where they will be reused, obviating the need for superfluous production. But there is a clear incongruence between intended recycling policies and their practice.
The Situation Today
Recently, more countries have enacted similar policies to China in response to the high quantities of waste contaminating the recyclable materials that they had agreed to process. Contamination not only makes the sorting process more tedious and expensive but actively pollutes these countries. Furthermore, such countries had become so inundated with Western garbage—recyclable and non-recyclable—that they had neither the capacity nor use for it. While China managed to reduce its levels of imported garbage by 99 percent, Southeast Asian countries have not been as successful.
The recycling industry is worth around US$250 billion, approximately the GDP of Portugal. For many people, the value is worth the risk. In response to restrictions on the cleanliness of imported garbage, many companies began to lie about their exports, stating that the refuse was far more recyclable than it was in actuality. Garbage exporters, working in tandem with importers, have largely managed to circumvent the government restrictions. Although the authorities of these countries have attempted to curb this detrimental practice, it’s arduous and unpleasant to sift through allegedly legal collections of waste and determine if they satisfy the country’s parameters.
Effects on People and Communities
In 2019, for example, the Indonesian government flagged 2,000 shipping containers said to be delivering recyclables but were contaminated, and a quarter were returned to their countries of origin. Most notably, 60 crates were sent back to Australia claiming to contain paper but instead were filled with household waste, packaging, used electronics, used baby diapers, and used footwear. In nearly all cases, importers and exporters have a tacit agreement on the composition of the waste, and the scheme is only foiled upon government intervention. Importing such waste is punishable in Indonesia by a prison sentence of up to 12 years along with a US$1 million fine.
The consequences of these actions are threefold: damaging the environment, posing serious health risks to people in the vicinity, and exacerbating the garbage problem as a whole.
The most lethal instance, though, occurred in Nigeria in 1988. An Italian business realized that it was US$4.3 million cheaper to ship 8,000 barrels of toxic waste to Nigeria than to process it in a plant governed by EU regulations. Their company proceeded to transport their 4,000 tonnes of waste to a local’s property after exchanging US$100 monthly for permission to do so. He, of course, was under the impression that the garage was not contaminated. After a chemical mishap, waste seeped into the local farmland, poisoning the rice crop, killing 19 people, including the property owner, and harming dozens more.
In terms of the environment, the more the garbage industry operates extrajudicially, the more destructive the effects on the environment will be. Even while the participants operated within the confines of the law, a large portion of recyclable materials was dumped in a landfill or incinerated. Furthermore, companies deceptively exported contaminated waste mixed into the garbage; deliberate or not, this is preventable and is a major factor in the decisions of these countries to stop accepting Western garbage. Now that the garbage trade practices operate increasingly illegally, there is even less oversight in terms of what is imported, how it is processed, and by whom. It’s important to note that the cost of recycling is far greater than dumping all the waste in rural Southeastern Asia or burning it or manufacturing new plastic to replace it, all of which are detrimental to the environment.
Landfills pepper rural land across Southeast Asia, where they engender devastating consequences. The incineration of vast amounts of plastic produces foul, toxic smoke. Furthermore, as plastics are irresponsibly deposited in landfills, they degrade, and microplastics start forming and circulating in the locality. Needless to say, both of these wreak havoc on the health of humans and animals in the vicinity. Essential water sources in rural villages have been documented to be veiled in a film of microplastic as a result of these practices.
Comments From Affected Individuals
According to a Malaysian mother named Evon, who lives near one of these dumps, this harmful dynamic has directly affected her family: “My son is always getting sick. I’m scared it will become more serious.”
Another Malaysian woman suspects that the river running through her village (and many others) serves as a mechanism for disseminating the waste given how it is downstream from landfills. Not only does their water quality drastically decline, but garbage and microplastics flow directly into their village via the river. She hopes that they don’t “become the next cancer village.” When asked what she thought about the situation as a whole, she insisted that Malaysia does not want to be “an international rubbish bin.”
Interestingly, there is some local support. Bangun, a poor village in Indonesia, sits nearby a landfill. Up to 40 dump trucks deposit garbage there daily. Two-thirds of its inhabitants rely on it as a source of income, scouring the trash for goods to sell. This pattern is not uncommon, especially in poorer villages where goods have a higher relative worth. Keman, who lives in Bangun, credits scavenging in the dump for funding his three children’s university tuition. Although it’s easy to view this behavior as yet another insidious manifestation of inequality, it goes to show that there’s far from a consensus even among those bearing the consequences firsthand. Additionally, the fact that thousands of people are financially dependent on there being constant flow of garbage further complicates the matter.
This dynamic does nothing to solve the environmental problem; all it accomplishes is cutting costs in richer countries by outsourcing their problems to poorer countries that have even less of an infrastructure to manage them and thus bear the consequences of Western convenience. Perhaps in the short term, richer countries benefit, but it is only a matter of time before popular support in southeast Asian countries impels the government to enact an import shutdown similar to that of China. After this shift, the West will have a considerably more difficult time finding a destination for their enormous quantities of waste; they will finally be forced to directly reckon with the crisis they caused. Delaying the construction of sustainable and efficient recycling plants serves only to postpone the inevitable, myopically prioritizing transient ease over what would be a beneficial solution for everyone.
Or, alternatively, we could use less plastic.