Last week, President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines threatened to wage war over dozens of containers of trash illegally dumped in Manila by a Canadian company, Chronic Plastics Inc., seven years ago.
"I'll give a warning to Canada maybe next week that they better pull that [trash] out … We'll declare war against them, we can handle them anyway," he said on April 23.
“Celebrate, because your trash is coming home ... Prepare a grand reception. Eat it if you want to,” he added.
Canada now says it is working to address the years-long conflict.
“We are working closely with the Philippines to resolve this issue in an environmentally responsible way,” Caroline Thériault, spokeswoman for Canada’s minister of environment said.
Philippines customs authorities estimate that Chronic Plastics Inc. shipped 103 containers with 2,450 tons of waste to the Philippines in 2013 and 2014. Upon inspection, the vessels, said to carry recyclable plastic, were found to contain trash that was not suitable for recycling, and therefore deemed “illegal” by the authorities.
Though Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau addressed the issue of the “illegal” trash in a bilateral meeting four years ago, no resolution has been reached.
“Going forward, we need to ensure that if a situation like this were to arise once again that the Canadian government has more power to actually demand action from the companies responsible,” Trudeau said in 2015.
At the time, environmental activists were dissatisfied with his response. In a statement, EcoWaste Coalition Vice President Renato Pineda said Trudeau should order an “immediate return to Canada of the illegal trash shipments while his government [is still thinking] of a … solution to solve the … dumping scandal.”
According to Pineda, “When [Trudeau] admits the loopholes in Canada’s enabling law — that’s an indictment of their violation of the Basel Convention,” an international treaty aimed at reducing the movements of hazardous waste between nations. The treaty was signed by 186 countries, including Canada and the Philippines, and was created after an outcry from developing countries over “deposits of toxic wastes imported from abroad.”
But, according to the Candian embassy in the Philippines, both countries are now working together to address the issue.
"A joint technical working group, consisting of officials from both countries, is examining the full spectrum of issues related to the removal of the waste with a view to a timely resolution," the embassy said in a statement last week.
Many developed countries, including the US, Canada, and countries in the EU, have been exporting their trash to developing nations to be recycled and processed, though it often simply ends up in developing nations' landfills. China — which previously accepted 45% of the world’s plastic waste imports — banned these waste imports last year, making Malaysia the world’s biggest importer of waste.
In the first seven months of 2018, Malaysia imported 456,000 tonnes of plastic waste from its 10 largest source countries, exceeding the 316,600 tonnes recorded for the whole of 2017, Channel NewsAsia reported.
Lack of resources in Southeast Asian countries, in particular, have prevented them from investing in waste management systems, resulting in an accumulation of garbage on land and waterways. And with wealthier nations exporting their waste to these same countries, Southeast Asia has now become a breeding ground for global waste.
“Consumers, especially those in the West, are conditioned to believe that when they separate their recyclables and throw them out, that it’ll be properly taken care of. But that’s been exposed as a myth,” Von Hernandez, the global coordinator for the Break Free from Plastic initiative, recently told HuffPost.
“What’s happening in Southeast Asia, what’s happening in Malaysia, shows just how bankrupt the recycling system really is.”
The massive amounts of trash have created health hazardous conditions and led to environmental issues. According to a report released in 2015, the majority of plastic entering the ocean comes from five countries in close geographical proximity — China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam.
In Manila, the improper treatment of waste has also impacted life on land. In 2000, a trash dump outside Manila, called Pataya, had accumulated so much waste that after a tropical typhoon, the municipal garbage dump collapsed, resulting in a devastating landslide.
Enormous piles of mud and rubbish from Pataya destroyed more than 100 shacks and huts in the area housing around 800 families. The precise number of lives lost is still unknown, but locals estimated that there were about 500 bodies under the rubbish.
"I cannot understand why they are making us a dump site," said Duterte, who threatened to sail to Canada and return the trash himself.
The growing tension between the two nations and Canada's potential breach of the Basel Convention has prompted some to question Trudeau's commitment to his tough stance against climate change.
This story was updated on April 29, 2019, to reflect recent developments.