Rich produce waste, the poor pay the price- extreme garbage challenges in developing countries
The problem of trash disposal by rich countries in developing nations is more serious now than ever. Ultra wealthy, industrialized and developed countries have turned the developing nations into landfills for their waste.
What is Happening Currently?
The practice of developing countries importing waste from their wealthy counterparts as a source of income has taken a turn for the worse as rich countries are shipping toxic waste in unregulated quantities to these countries.
The primary source of waste and garbage originating from developed countries is plastic. And it is cheaper for them to ship plastic waste-filled containers to third world countries like Malaysia, Sri Lanka or Bangladesh (among many others) for “recycling” purposes, rather than disposing of the garbage themselves.
The import and recycling of plastic are legal and seen as profitable “green” industrial prospects in developing countries. But only a small part of all plastic waste produced is recycled. Megacorporations find burning the plastic waste and its disposal in landfills of poor countries much more profitable.
Consequences of Waste Burning & Untreated Disposal
Large scale burning of toxic waste adversely impacts the environment and health of the local people where the waste is carelessly dumped. Toxins generated from massive landfills can eventually seep in the local water system, endangering the lives of people. Plastics entering the coastal waters of poor countries eventually enter the global ocean conveyor belt. In addition to this, improper burning of plastics causes an increase in carbon dioxide emissions, worsening the global climate crisis.
Who Is At Fault Here?
Are large corporations solely to be blamed here? Are the local government officials hand in glove with these large corporations? Or is it the collusion between large companies and governments, who distance themselves from the consequences of the deadly toxic waste as they allow it to be dumped far from their own homes?
According to a BBC report, the European Union has the record for exporting more plastic waste than any other region in the world, while the United States ranks number one as a country in exporting waste overseas. The export of large amounts of waste to developing countries is made possible by the nexus between corporations and governments.
Ironically, rich countries coerce poor and developing countries to adopt sustainable practices, protect forests, clean up energy, and reduce pollution generating industries, while they themselves continue to use the same environmentally unfavourable methods, using which they became rich and developed in the first place.
The academic discourse surrounding the problem of rich nations forcing the poor countries to take their waste has termed the process as ‘environmental imperialism’, an offshoot neo-imperialism, headed naturally by the US and other western superpowers.
Paul Driessen, an ecologist from Lawrence University, Wisconsin, outlined in his 2003 book Eco-Imperialism: Green Power, Black Death that this “new” form of imperialism puts the developing world in a state of poverty and the developed world reaps the benefits.
Who Watches the Watchers?
In 1992, the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and Their Disposal, commonly known as the Basel Convention, was mapped out as an international treaty, signed by 188 countries, to reduce the transfer of hazardous waste between nations. Special attention was given to prevent the transfer of toxic waste from developed to less developed and poor countries.
The treaty put the onus of preventing the export of hazardous waste majorly on the developed countries, thus, giving them the power to call the shots. Furthermore, the agreement did not distinguish between recyclable plastic and contaminated mixed plastic waste, leaving loopholes for the big players to export any and all plastic waste offshore.
Interestingly, the United States, which is the world’s largest exporters of plastic waste as a country, has not joined the Basel agreement.
Reasonable Action by the Underdogs
After years of serving as the dumping grounds for the developed world, poor and developing countries have finally begun to take some reasonable action. As China has climbed up the economic ladder and become the world’s second-biggest economic power, it decisively banned the import of all kinds of plastic waste in January 2018.
However, this move resulted in other Asian countries becoming the waste dumps for the rich countries, this time, including China (the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree). A massive amount of waste is imported to many Southeast Asian countries such as Malaysia, Vietnam, Thailand, Sri Lanka, Indonesia and the Philippines.
Not all hope is lost for the developing countries though. Most recently, Sri Lanka, as well as many of the above mentioned Asian countries, has begun to work hard to cope with the massive influx of waste by richer countries and to reduce garbage transportation.
Following China’s lead, Sri Lanka ordered the suspension of most of the plastic waste imports in the region. Most recently, the resplendent isle, as Sri Lanka is called, is sending 240 containers of illegally imported toxic waste back to Britain.
Malaysia also sent back 150 containers of plastic waste to mostly European nations, stating that it would not be the “garbage dump” of the world. In May 2019, the Philippines shipped 69 containers back to Canada after a long-run dispute.
System of "Acquiescence" Introduced
Rich countries will have to solicit consent from poorer ones to dump plastic waste. As per the UN transboundary waste chief, the new rules that will come into consequence from January 1, 2021 will result in a clearer ocean in five years.
The new rules, accepted by more than 180 nations under an amendment to the Basel convention, introduce a “prior informed consent” system for all difficult-to-recycle or contaminated plastic exports. Tighter export controls might first see major plastic exporting nations, such as the UK and the US, dispose of waste in landfills and incinerators.
What Are The New Laws?
As per the precepts, the European Union has forbidden all non-recyclable plastic waste from being shipped to developing nations. It intends to make the trade more honest to allow developing countries such as Vietnam and Malaysia to deny low-quality, difficult-to-recycle waste before it is still shipped.
Under the new laws, only ‘clean plastic waste’ that can be recycled can be transported to non-OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation & Development) countries. Besides, stricter measures have been chosen to ship plastic garbage from the EU to OECD countries and intra-EU shipments of synthetic waste.
The move to regulate this type of waste exports adds to the EU plastics strategy aims to cut down plastic usage and encourage better sorting and recycling across the continent. A representative from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said it had vowed to ban the export of poisoning plastic waste to non-OECD countries and introduce stricter controls on scrap exports. However, as of October 2020, the UK was still sending 7.1m kg to Malaysia, a non-OECD member.
The Road Ahead
The truth of the matter is that no matter how far away the waste is dumped, it remains on the common space that we all eventually share- the earth. Rich countries might not see any direct negative impact on them by importing their waste to other countries just yet. But in the long run, these massive dumping practices will severely affect the global ecosystem- and that includes the rich countries as well.
There is still an overwhelming demand for locations to send plastic and other waste for recycling, and the challenge of how to dispose of it remains. The international community must come together to solve this issue before it becomes too big of a crisis to be dealt with.
What do you think can be the best approach for sustainably disposing waste and saving developing and small countries from falling prey to the bigger fish in the process?