Eighty-three shipping containers full of plastic and other types of waste recently arrived at a port in Cambodia to be processed from the United States and Canada — but the hulking vessels of trash won’t be staying for long.
After inspecting the containers, customs officials have decided to send them all back, forcing the US and Canada to find solutions to recycle and dispose of their own waste, according to CNN.
In doing so, Cambodia becomes the latest Asian country to reject shipments of garbage and send them back to their points of origin, a trend that has thrown global waste management systems into crisis mode. Cambodian officials expressed outrage that their country was being treated like a dumping ground, according to Time.
"Cambodia is not a dustbin where foreign countries can dispose of out-of-date e-waste, and the government also opposes any import of plastic waste and lubricants to be recycled in this country," said Neth Pheaktra, a spokesperson for the country’s environment minister.
For years, Western countries have sent most of their excess trash — garbage they don’t have the capacity to process — to China, but that arrangement ended in 2018 when China announced it would no longer be accepting trash from other countries.
A rush to find other countries willing to take on the excess waste ensued, but these efforts have failed as countries throughout Asia have, one by one, refused to take on hazardous, hard-to-recycle, and other types of waste.
Countries are refusing to accept the garbage because of the extensive environmental and health problems it can cause. The garbage that gets dumped on other countries is usually the most intractable variety — unable to be recycled, it’s typically incinerated or sent to a landfill.
Earlier this month, the Philippines sent 69 shipping containers of garbage back to Canada.
“Celebrate, because your trash is coming home ... Prepare a grand reception. Eat it if you want to,” Rodrigo Duterte, the Philippines president, said at the time.
In Malaysia, a government contractor resorted to illegally burning shipments of foreign plastic waste, filling one town with toxic fumes. The country also recently sent back 450 tons of plastic waste to their Western countries of origin.
E-waste is another big problem facing countries. Electronic items — such as cell phones, fridges, and air conditions — are often difficult to recycle and contain hazardous substances. When e-waste gets shipped to other countries, it’s often disposed of improperly, threatening human health.
Cambodia’s decision to send back the shipping containers reflects the growing global waste management crisis. Currently, humanity generates more waste than it’s able to process. As a result, landfill capacity is being reached in countries around the world, and pollution from expedient waste management systems is increasing.
The United Nations urges countries to phase out the production of materials that are hard to recycle, limit the use of hazardous materials like mercury, and develop robust e-waste management protocols.
As the global waste crisis grows, more countries will likely seek to partner with the UN in similar ways.