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Cambodia has become the latest Asian country to reject shipments of waste sent to its shores by Western companies for processing.

Cambodian officials announced Wednesday that they were sending 1,600 tonnes of trash back to their source – the United States and Canada.

Cambodia is sending back 1,600 tonnes of trash to the US and Canada.
Cambodia Ministry of Environment
Cambodia is sending back 1,600 tonnes of trash to the US and Canada.

A total of 83 shipping containers of plastic waste were found on Tuesday at the major southwestern port of Sihanoukville, said Neth Pheaktra, Secretary of State and Spokesman to the Ministry of Environment.

The containers, opened by customs and excise officials, were labeled as “recyclable products” with no labels of plastic waste, said Pheaktra.

Shipping containers full of plastic waste were found in Sihanoukville port on July 16, 2019.
Cambodia Ministry of Environment
Shipping containers full of plastic waste were found in Sihanoukville port on July 16, 2019.

The customs ministry is now conducting an investigation into how the containers ended up in Cambodia, and which companies or groups are behind the import. If discovered, they would be fined and brought to court, Pheaktra said. Meanwhile, the federal government will begin the process of sending back the trash to the US and Canada.

“Cambodia is not a dustbin where foreign countries can dispose of out-of-date e-waste, and the government also opposes any import of plastic waste and lubricants to be recycled in this country,” said Pheaktra.

This is just the latest incident in a global trash crisis, in which electronic waste, plastics, and other trash from mostly Western countries get shipped to Southeast Asia.

Cambodia is sending back 1,600 tonnes of trash to the US and Canada.
Cambodia Ministry of Environment
Cambodia is sending back 1,600 tonnes of trash to the US and Canada.

Last year, China banned plastic waste imports as part of an initiative to clean up its environment. That move caused a ripple effect through global supply chains, as middlemen sought new destinations for their trash – such as Malaysia or the Philippines.

This pivoting of trash imports has created an illicit industry of unlicensed plastic recyclers. In Malaysia earlier this year, a government crackdown found at least 148 unlicensed recycling factories that pollute local communities with toxic fumes and contaminate bodies of water.

In response, governments are trying to crackdown and stem the inflow of trash. Earlier this year, the Philippines and Canada engaged in a drawn out diplomatic row over the issue of imported trash, growing so heated that Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte recalled his ambassador to Ottawa – before Canada agreed to take back 2,450 tons of trash in May.

Environmental activists in Manila on September 9, 2015, demanding trash be shipped back to Canada.
JAY DIRECTO/AFP/Getty Images
Environmental activists in Manila on September 9, 2015, demanding trash be shipped back to Canada.

Also in May, Malaysia sent back 450 tonnes of plastic waste to their countries of origin, including the the United Kingdom, Canada, the US, Japan, and the Netherlands.

As countries bat around each others’ waste, they have also made collaborative efforts to stem the crisis. The governments of 187 countries agreed to control the movement of plastic waste between national borders in May by adding plastic to the Basel Convention, an international regulatory treaty.

The move was “a highly welcome step towards redressing this imbalance and restoring a measure of accountability to the global plastic waste management system,” said the World Wildlife Fund.