Editor’s Note: Dr. Helena Varkkey is the author of the book “Transboundary Haze in Southeast Asia: Palm Oil and Patronage.” She is based at the Department of International and Strategic Studies, University of Malaya, Malaysia. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion at CNN.
In most neighborhoods in the developed world, municipal services cart away trash on a regular basis. When consumers diligently separate their recyclables from organic waste at the source, trust in their local recycling systems absolves them of much of the mental guilt of consumption.
This is where the global dimension of the problem begins. It is often cheaper for developed countries to ship containers of plastic waste halfway around the world to be “recycled” in developing countries than to deal with the trash themselves.
While plastic importing and recycling can be a legitimate and lucrative “green” industry in the developing world, rogue firms find it even more profitable to either incinerate plastics or dump them in landfills. Burning plastic releases noxious fumes into the air. Plastics in landfills can leech out toxins, and these plastics and toxins can end up in local waterways.
Who is at fault? The rogue importers? The local governments who allow this to happen under their very noses? Or the exporters and their governments who mentally distance themselves from the waste once it is geographically taken “away”?
The irony is that no matter how far this waste is distanced, it still ends up somewhere on Spaceship Earth, humankind’s one and only home. While the immediate negative effects of this imported waste are most acutely felt locally, the global ecosystem will suffer in the long run.
Improperly incinerated plastics cause CO2 emissions to skyrocket, fueling global climate change. Plastics which find their way into these countries’ coastal waters eventually enter into the global oceanic conveyor belt. And unrecycled materials increase the demand for new plastics worldwide.
There is an old trope in the environmental stewardship debate between the developing and developed worlds: Rich countries will pressure poorer ones to be more sustainable – to conserve forests, clean up their energy sources, and curb polluting industries – while developing countries will point out that their developed counterparts got rich by employing the same environmentally unfriendly methods they now denounce.
Paul Driessen’s book “Eco-Imperialism: Green Power, Black Death” argues that this “new” form of imperialism is keeping the developing world destitute for the benefit of the developed world.
Recent reports of plastic rubbish sporting tell-tale European brands being discovered thousands of miles away in trash dumps in Asian countries highlight a new dimension of this debate: the distancing of waste.
Jennifer Clapp’s work details how the global economy has enabled this geographical and mental distancing between the consumers and their waste, and how this is further encouraging overconsumption.
The Basel Convention was specifically designed to prevent the transfer of hazardous waste from developed to developing countries. Importantly, the convention places the burden on the exporting (usually developed) countries not to engage in irresponsible dumping elsewhere.
However, the convention does not differentiate recyclable plastic from contaminated mixed plastic waste, which has provided a loophole for the export of any and all plastic waste. The United States, one of the largest exporters of plastic waste in the world, is also a nonparty to the convention.
After years of being the world’s dumping ground, China banned the import of all types of plastic waste in January 2018. This power move, however, merely redirected waste containers further afield, mainly to the Southeast Asian countries of Malaysia, Vietnam, Thailand, Indonesia and the Philippines.
An amendment to the Basel Convention which will come into effect in 2021 will allow only clean, homogeneous, and readily recyclable nonhalogenated polymers to be freely traded globally. Until then, the highly-publicized actions of Malaysia and the Philippines in naming and shaming waste exporters and sending rancid shipping containers back to their ports of origin is driving home the ironies of eco-imperialism.
This “new” angle has provided developing countries with fresh ammunition to push back against broader pro-environmental, (arguably) anti-developmental demands of wealthy countries. However, focusing on the misdemeanours of the developed world should not distract from the fact that local environmental governance in many of these developing countries leaves much to be desired.
For example, in a series of incidents in the Malaysian state of Johor earlier this year, around 4,000 residents developed mysterious ailments which were later linked to the dumping of toxic factory waste into Sungai Kim Kim River. Nearby, 111 schools had to be temporarily closed.
Having shared but differentiated responsibilities is a principle formalized under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change; that framework acknowledges the shared obligation of all nations to address environmental destruction, while allocating more responsibility to developed countries to do so.
This principle, however, should not be used to justify business-as-usual practices in emerging economies, in the name of “development.”
At the same time, offending developed countries must be called to task for hiding behind their environmentalist credentials while secretly taking advantage of weak governance in developing nations to spirit away their environmental misdemeanors.