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Environment

Southeast Asia sends back heaps of trash to rich countries

After China import ban, garbage-filled containers swamp the region

A container filled with trash arrives at a port in Indonesia.    © AP

MANILA -- Southeast Asian nations have begun to turn away smuggled waste to the countries of origin, with Indonesia and Cambodia following in the footsteps of Malaysia and the Philippines.

The moves come after China, the longtime major trash importer, stopped accepting scraps last year. Seeing a huge influx of garbage into the region, Southeast Asian countries are refusing to become a dumping ground for developed economies' waste.

Indonesia will send eight containers of paper trash back to Australia after finding them mixed in with electronic waste and other dangerous materials, officials at Tanjung Perak Port in East Java told local reporters. Officials at Batam port say they are also returning 49 containers of waste to countries such as the U.S., France and Germany.

The crackdowns are fueled by growing public concerns about the potential environmental and health risks.

In June, Jakarta sent back to the U.S. five containers labeled as "paper waste," but which also included plastic, rubber and diapers.

Indonesia will "not hesitate to return illegally shipped waste," Minister of Environment and Forestry Siti Nurbaya Bakar said.

In Cambodia, 83 containers of plastic waste that were mislabeled as recyclables and sent to Sihanoukville port are heading back to the U.S. and Canada, government officials said earlier this month.

Sri Lanka says it is shipping back to the U.K. 111 containers that were found on July 22. After residents complained about the foul smell, officials found medical waste included in the trash.

Beijing's ban on plastic waste imports sent rich economies like the U.S., Europe and Japan scrambling for alternative destinations for their recyclables, settling in many cases on Southeast Asia.

While China took in just 51,000 tons of plastic waste in 2018, less than one-hundredth of its year-earlier amount, Malaysia's imports surged 60% to 870,000 tons, Thailand's more than tripled to 480,000 tons and Indonesia's more than doubled to 320,000 tons, according to the International Trade Center, a joint agency of the World Trade Organization and the United Nations.

Faced with waste exceeding their processing capacity and growing concerns about environmental contamination, these countries are cracking down on illegally shipped waste. Malaysia said at the end of May that it will send back hundreds of tons of smuggled waste that had come from countries such as Japan, the U.S. and Australia.

Also in late May, the Philippines shipped back 69 trash-filled containers from Canada that had been left at a port. President Rodrigo Duterte threatened to declare war against Canada, recalling the ambassador to the North American country at one point. Ottawa agreed to retrieve the waste, covering the cost.

Duterte has been openly complaining about the price developing countries pay for the climate change caused by the economic development of wealthier countries.

"Developing countries that have contributed the least to global warming, like my country the Philippines, suffer the most from its horrendous consequences," Duterte said in a speech in Japan in May. "With water levels rising, most countries will measure the losses in terms of coastlines. Developing archipelagic nations like the Philippines, however, measure our losses in terms of islands and the lives of our citizens."

Waste exporters are scrambling to find solutions. In May, parties to the Basel Convention, a treaty regulating the international movement of hazardous waste, adopted new rules classifying dirty plastic as unsuitable for recycling. The Group of 20 countries agreed in June to set a goal of eliminating marine plastic waste by 2050.

Malaysia and Thailand plan to reduce plastic waste imports, and Vietnam is considering restricting inbound shipments.

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