Pressure Mounts on Canada to sign global ban on shipping recyclables

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As reported by the Mia Rabson of The Canadian Press, there is increasing pressure on Canada by environmental activists and Asian nations to sign on to an amendment to an international treaty that would fully ban developed countries like Canada from shipping hazardous waste, including recyclables, to the developing world.

The Basel Convention amendment was proposed more than 20 years ago but Canada’s objection to it is resurfacing as the Philippines continues to press Canada take back more than 100 containers filled with mislabeled waste that were shipped to Manila in 2013 and 2014 labelled as recyclables.

The Basel Convention, adopted by all countries except the United States and Haiti, puts limitations on shipments of hazardous waste, and requires the destination country to be made aware of the contents of the waste and agree to receive it.

In 1995, an amendment was proposed to take the Basel Convention even further, and outright ban all shipments of hazardous waste — with or without consent — including waste intended for recycling. The belief was wealthy countries were avoiding the Basel Convention by labelling things as recycling. Canada has never agreed to it and still won’t.

At least three-quarters of the parties to the original convention have to agree to the amendment, and only two more countries need to say yes for it to be adopted. Debate about the amendment will again be on the agenda as countries meet about the Basel Convention in Switzerland in April.

“Canada, like other Basel Parties such as Japan, Australia and New Zealand for example, has not signed the amendment because the government believes that there are positive consequences to environmentally sound recycling and recovery operations,” wrote Environment Canada spokeswoman Gabrielle Lamontagne in an email.

That makes no sense, says Kathleen Ruff, founder of rightoncanada.ca, an online human rights advocacy site. “Why on Earth can we justify shipping it all the way around the world to poor countries that can’t deal with their own waste anyway?” she said.

In a letter sent to Prime Minister Trudeau on February 11, 2019, Canadian and international environmental, health and human rights organizations call on Prime Minister Trudeau to:

  • Ensure the expeditious return to Canada of 2,500 tons of wastes illegally exported from Canada and dumped in the Philippines, as required by the Basel Convention.
  • Ratify the Basel Ban amendment, which  would prohibit the export of hazardous waste for any reason from more developed countries to less developed countries. The amendment was put in place by an initiative of the developing and European countries and needs the support of only two more countries to come into effect. Canada is one of only 24 eligible countries that have not supported the amendment.

In 2013 and 2014, 103 containers arrived in ports in Manila from Canada, labelled as plastics for recycling, but upon inspection Filipino authorities discovered they were filled with household garbage, including adult diapers, food waste and discarded electronics. Except for a few of the containers that were illegally disposed of, most of the containers remain in quarantine in the ports.

Then Customs Commissioner Ariel Nepomuceno (2nd left) inspects on February 10, 2014 one of 50 container vans containing tons of garbage that are being kept on hold at the container port in Manila. The shipment from Canada was declared as plastic scraps but contained household trash instead. 

A Filipino court ordered Canada to take the garbage back, and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised during visits to the Philippines in 2015 and 2017 to deal with the issue. A bilateral working group was established last fall and meetings are to take place in the next few months.

When the shipments were sent, Canadian regulations applied the Basel Convention rules only to waste Canada considered hazardous. Lamontagne said that changed in 2016, so Canada now applies the convention to waste considered hazardous in the destination country. Lamontagne said that means the containers in the Philippines would be prohibited today.

However, Ruff noted the containers would still end up in the Philippines because they were labelled as recycling. They would only be barred if Canada adopted the amendment, she said.

For several decades, countries like Canada and the United States have found it cheaper to flatten plastic garbage into pallets and ship them across the ocean to Asian countries where companies buy the material and hope to recycle it for resale.

Ruff notes many of those nations don’t have sophisticated waste-management systems.

In 2017, the journal Environmental Science and Technology estimated that nearly 90 per cent of the plastics found in the oceans is believed to come from just 10 rivers in Africa and Asia.

Credit: Amanda Montañez; Source: “Export of Plastic Debris by Rivers into the Sea,” by Christian Schmidt et al., in Environmental Science & Technology, Vol. 51, No. 21; November 7, 2017

Aileen Lucero, the national coordinator of the EcoWaste Coalition of the Philippines, wrote an open letter to the Canadian Prime Minister early this year. In the letter, Ms. Lucero stated: “The dumping of Canadian waste in the Philippines is immoral and illegal.”

“The dumping of Canadian wastes in the Philippines is immoral and illegal,” organizations, including IPEN and Basel Action Network, said in a statement to Trudeau Monday. “It is a violation of Canada’s obligations under the U.N. Basel Convention on the Control of Trans-boundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal. Yet, despite making promises, Canada has failed to take action.”

Environment Minister Catherine McKenna is fond of citing a statistic that the equivalent of a truck full of plastic is dumped into the ocean every minute around the world. She is pushing Canada to eliminate plastic garbage entirely by 2040. But that would require much of the plastic produced to be recycled.