SE Asia saying no to West's trash

An Indonesian customs officer with an Australian newspaper found in a waste container at Surabaya.
An Indonesian customs officer with an Australian newspaper found in a waste container at Surabaya.

Mountains of rubbish are being dumped across Southeast Asia and the locals are not happy, accusing Australia, the US and other Western nations of ignoring their own environment protocols in favour of cheaper options in poorer countries.

It's a problem that has lingered for decades but escalated dramatically when China imposed a ban on imports of foreign waste plastics last year, leaving disposal companies scratching for alternatives.

A survey by the World Trade Organisation and the United Nations found Chinese imports of waste last year dropped to less that one-hundredth of its intake in 2017, while Malaysian imports jumped 60 per cent, Indonesia's figure doubled and in Thailand waste imports tripled.

In a rare show of Southeast Asian unity; Indonesia, Malaysia, Cambodia and the Philippines have complained bitterly and are sending other people's trash back to their home countries.

"This is actually a positive development," Kevin Evans, Indonesia Director of the Australia-Indonesia Centre said.

"It is also clear that governments across Southeast Asia are responding with a similar voice."

"There has been this flurry of concern in several countries about the impact of this dangerous waste. It is very interesting that concerns about the negative impact on the environment and health of local residents has trumped profits."

Environmental groups have been vocal when targeting dumpers. Typically Western rubbish is shipped through a middle man to a developing country where corrupt officials are readily bribed and the trash is dumped before the authorities can act.

Last month a shipment of 83 containers filled with toxic waste plastics was discovered after a random search by customs officials in the southern Cambodian port of Sihanoukville.

The containers were labelled 'recycled products' and had arrived piecemeal from the US and Canada over the last 10 months through a Khmer company, which the government says was run by Chinese.

"If someone puts rubbish in front of your house, would you agree?" Preap Kol, executive director of Transparency International Cambodia, said.

"As for me, I would ask where it came from, complain and demand responsibility."

Indonesia has announced it would send back more than 210 tonnes of trash to Australia after it was found to contain banned materials including household garbage and used electronics, and Malaysia said it would return another 100 tonnes of Australian rubbish.

"If you ship to Malaysia, we will return it without mercy," Malaysian environment minister, Yeo Bee Yin declared, adding much of the waste that had been dumped was falsely declared.

That shipment was supposed to contain paper waste for recycling but inspectors found it was contaminated with nappies, electronic waste, oil, and plastic bottles and have ordered it sent back to Brisbane.

Australia exports about 60,00 tonnes of waste, mainly metal, pulp and paper to Indonesia where the law clearly states that contaminated waste must be sent back to its country of origin.

"Indonesia has not changed the level of contamination in the waste it will take, it's just enforcing the rules," Peter Shmigel, the head of the Australian Council of recycling recently said.

Another 49 containers of waste was sent to France and other developed nations by Indonesia, The Philippines ended a long running diplomatic spat with Canada in June after it returned 69 containers of rubbish and Sri Lanka is shipping 111 containers containing medical waste back to Britain.

"Western countries will have to learn to develop the necessary technologies to process their own hazardous waste, even if it costs more," Evans said.

"Outsourcing these costs to the environment and peoples across Southeast Asia is no longer an easy option."

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison and state premiers have agreed to establish a timetable that will end exports of waste plastic, paper, tyres and glass while earmarking $20 million to fund innovative projects aimed at growing the local recycling industry.

But not everyone is happy. Impoverished villagers who scour the scrap heaps for plastic and aluminium to on-sell to recycling firms and waste to be used as fuel are upset by the authorities who have cracked down on the practice while stepping-up inspections of imported rubbish.

"If they're going to forbid us from this, there must be a solution. The government hasn't provided us with jobs," Heri Masud told The Straits Times in Singapore.

Australian Associated Press