Why waste trade should be on the Asean Summit agenda

FRIDAY, JUNE 21, 2019

Asean leaders meet this week in Bangkok as their countries reel from an unprecedented deluge of foreign waste dumping. Yet neither waste trade nor waste is on the agenda, especially considering the summit’s stated theme, “Advancing Partnership for Sustainability”.

Matters concerning sustainable development, in the face of the region’s rapid growth, are worryingly missing. Instead, discussions will focus on trade, economic and security issues. 

In the past two years, countries in the region – both poor and prosperous – have been faced with record shipments of plastic waste from richer nations. Between 2016 and 2018, the region saw plastic waste imports grow by a staggering 171 per cent. Most of these shipments were labelled “recyclable”, but were found to be unrecyclable mixed and contaminated waste. With little or no infrastructure to deal with all this garbage, the shipments of foreign trash began piling up. This led to import restrictions and other measures by affected countries, culminating in May and June with the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia threatening to repatriate the waste.

The current waste-trade crisis faced by the region is largely due to China’s 2018 ban on trash imports. Earlier, many Southeast Asian countries had been importing waste, but at a much smaller scale; and they never had to return shipments until the situation reached crisis proportions. But with global plastic waste generation showing no signs of letting up, the question is, should Asean nations continue to receive the world’s waste?

It’s outrageous that some countries in the West still believe that Southeast Asia should keep welcoming their waste imports, and that some businesses and governments here still believe that waste trade is profitable. However, the current situation shows that plastic waste recycling is a myth. If it were technically feasible, why isn’t waste processed in the “advanced” recycling facilities in the country of origin? To say that Southeast Asia should use this opportunity to develop its own recycling facilities smacks of toxic colonialism, rationalising the injustice of how poorer countries are burdened with pollution generated by the First World.

At the same time, governments urgently need to rethink their own domestic waste policies. An effective waste policy would be to consider materials from the moment they are designed. In the case of plastic waste, it means tackling single-use plastic products and packaging at source. Limiting, and eventually eliminating, single-use plastics will dramatically reduce waste generation. This is important to consider as many Southeast Asian countries are heavy plastic bag users, and are markets for unrecyclable sachet packaging.

In all this, Asean has an important role to play in addressing both waste trade and plastic production. Currently, we are seeing only small pockets of national bans and plastic regulations as knee-jerk reactions to the two waste crises. But these measures, although laudable, need to be strengthened. Evidence suggests that as countries enact bans and launch contingency plans, they only move the problem to places where regulations and restrictions are weaker. An Asean-level response can ensure an extra layer of protection. For example, the Asean can use its influence as a trading bloc to ensure no trade in waste transpires within the region.

The Asean can further be a global leader in innovation. A holistic regional policy geared toward massively reducing the production of single-use plastic packaging and products, and facilitating innovation on reusable packaging and alternative delivery systems will create new and sustainable business models to replace the outdated and dirty waste-recycling industry with greener and healthier businesses.

Given Thailand’s stated focus on sustainability for this year’s summit, Asean people should demand no less than for their leaders to put waste and waste trade on the table. This is a timely opportunity and a test of Asean leadership and relevance. By stopping waste imports and implementing strong plastic reduction policies, the Asean region is in an ideal position to help spur a transformation of the global economy, forcing the West to rethink their waste generation and end all waste exports.


Lea Guerrero is Philippines country director for Greenpeace Southeast Asia and can be contacted at [email protected]
Tara Buakamsri is Thailand country director for Greenpeace Southeast Asia and can be contacted at [email protected]