IN January 2018, the world’s biggest importer of scrap plastic, China, imposed a country-wide ban on importing plastic waste, effectively halting the export of plastic waste to China. With China out of the picture, developed nations and regions shipped their plastic waste to South-East Asian nations, taking advantage of lax environmental regulations in the region.
Malaysia’s imports rose to about 110,000 tonnes per month following China’s ban (according to Greenpeace) and plastic waste imports tripled to 11,900 tonnes from 2016 to 2018 in the Philippines (according to news site Rappler). Thailand’s plastic waste imports increased by almost 2,000% and there was a significant increase in plastic waste in Vietnam as well (according to Greenpeace’s news site Unearthed).
However, Asean countries are individually resisting the pressure. For example, the Philippines sent back 51 containers of mixed waste to South Korea in January. The Philippines has also delivered on its threat of sending back 69 containers of garbage to Canada. Malaysia returned five containers to Spain and Environment Minister Yeo Bee Yin stated that Malaysia would continue to send waste back to countries that exported them.
Malaysia and Vietnam suspended the issue of licences to restrict imports of plastic waste. Thailand had also ordered a temporary prohibition on importing plastic waste. Indonesia is the latest to reject trash imports from Canada.
Asean countries are taking a strong stance on this issue. However, there are certain measures that could be taken by Asean as a whole that would act as a stronger deterrent against plastic waste exports, such as ratifying the Basel Ban Amendment, forming a convention similar to the Bamako Convention (a treaty of African nations prohibiting the import of hazardous waste), and forming a joint task force to deal with the problem.
The Basel Ban Amendment was adopted in 1995 as an amendment to the Basel Convention. It is an international treaty designed to minimise the transfer of hazardous waste from developed to less developed countries. The amendment has been accepted by the European Union, which is one of the largest producers of plastic waste, yet it had not been ratified, as it requires the ratification of three-quarters of the member states of the Basel Convention.
The Basel Ban prohibits export of hazardous waste for whatever reason, including recycling, from a list of developed countries (mostly in the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, including but not limited to countries such as Britain, Canada and the United States) to developing countries.
Ratifying the Basel Ban Amendment would signify Asean’s stand against the export of plastic waste from these developed countries into the developing countries in the Asean region.
Ratifying the Basel Ban Amendment could largely reduce the amount of plastic waste coming into Asean as the developed countries would hesitate before sending their plastic waste into the region.
Asean nations collectively could lobby at the next Basel Convention Conference for stronger protection against the exportation of plastic waste. Besides that, Asean could also lobby for faster ratification and implementation of the Basel Ban Amendment.
The Basel Ban Amendment is a suitable measure, on paper, to deter any future exportation of waste into the region.
Asean could also come up with a convention to ban importation of waste by any member state. It could look towards the Bamako Convention for some inspiration.
The Bamako Convention is a treaty signed by African nations prohibiting the import of any hazardous waste. It arose from the failure of the Basel Convention to prohibit trade of hazardous waste with developing countries. Similarly, Asean could come up with a similar convention which bans the importation of plastic waste into the region.
However, the implementation and execution of the Bamako Convention is in shambles due to a lack of funds and lack of follow-up. It is also lacking in a competent authority to ensure it is implemented among the signatories. Significant red tape and internal conflicts among the states are also hindering its implementation.
In this sense, the Asean community must be tightly knit and able to resist foreign pressure and financial temptation when it comes to importing waste. The execution of this new convention must be well planned in advance to guarantee its effectiveness.
This method is more effective than ratifying the Basel Ban Amendment alone, as Asean nations can depend on themselves rather than depending on others.
Asean could form a joint task force made up of the environment ministers of all member states. This task force could come up with measures to deter the importation of such waste.
One such method is to tighten the checks on cargo ships to ensure that no waste is being shipped into the region under false pretences. The task force could also implement measures to increase policing and prosecution of individuals who flout environmental regulations.
The joint task force must be given wide enough powers to carry out the mandate. By having a joint task force, intelligence could be shared between member states to ensure that the waste is not smuggled into the region due to the greed of unscrupulous individuals.
There could also be scheduled shipping routes that would return the waste back to the developed countries from which it was exported.
Transfer of knowledge in terms of disposing of the waste could also be shared between Asean’s member states.
Consolidating the resources that each Asean member state has to offer allows the region to deal with the plastic waste issue effectively.
There are so many more things that Asean could do collectively to prevent such problems from arising in the future, especially if politics is not allowed to come between the cooperation of member states to prevent plastic waste from being dumped here in the future.
JEEN ANN YOUNG