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Canada’s waste trade policy: A global concern

The global community should be alarmed at the recent statement of the Canadian Environment and Climate Change Ministry that the “wastes that ended up on Philippine shores were not illegal under Canadian rules.” With that hands-off policy to illegal waste trade, what measures are there to stop private Canadian firms from continuing to ship waste to poorer countries?

Canada’s weak waste laws that lack mechanisms to recall illegally shipped waste and consider legal exports of municipal waste for disposal, puts poor countries at risk. The case involving the Philippines is a stark example. In the course of several months in 2013-2014, Chronic Inc. from Ontario systematically shipped 103 containers of Vancouver’s garbage to Manila. The shipments, misdeclared as recyclable plastics, were mixed waste that included rotting food and used diapers.

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Canada has repeatedly disowned responsibility. Claiming that the importation was a matter between private firms, it has refused to take back the waste and prosecute the exporting company and individuals. And the Philippines, recipient of several million Canadian dollars worth of grants for tourism development and more than 20 million in typhoon aid, declined to file a formal protest. The two Philippine importers are facing charges in local courts, but their Canadian counterpart, Jim Makris, owner of Chronic, remains uncharged, insisting that his shipment was not illegal—a line now adopted by his government.

This is the sort of unequal relationship that prevents poorer countries from putting up a fight when it comes to waste trade. With equally weak waste laws and high unemployment and poverty levels, poor nations are hesitant to file formal protests to international bodies or treaties for fear of damaging trade relations and development aid. Economic and political bullying comes into play.

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It is convenient to label waste shipments as household or municipal waste and call these nonhazardous because poor importing countries often lack technical equipment to scientifically determine that such wastes are indeed hazardous. In Manila all the authorities could do was a cursory eyeball inspection before declaring the garbage nonhazardous (despite the bacteria and contaminants building up in the dirty diapers and rotten food and the toxic chemicals leaching out of the odd battery or e-waste in the trash).

This is why the illegal transport of both hazardous and other wastes across international borders is classified as an international crime, and why waste trade is regulated by a treaty known as the Basel Convention. Waste trade capitalizes on the unequal relationship between rich and poor countries, turning developing nations into trash repositories, without adequate resources to deal with imported waste (let alone their own) and unable to use legal recourse for fear of losing aid money and investments.

The Environmental Compliance and Enforcement Committee of the Interpol monitors illegal transnational disposal of waste, whether hazardous or nonhazardous, as these “can significantly damage a community’s livelihood, undercut legitimate treatment facilities and permit the loss of recoverable raw materials, thereby threatening long-term economic sustainability and national stability.” The Canadian waste case is an international crime, and both the Philippines and Canada must treat it as such.

A 2014 report published by the Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment cites Canada’s poor waste record. The report cited data from 2008 where Canada ranked bottom among 17 other developed nations, producing more municipal waste than any of its peer countries. In 2010, Canada’s municipal waste generation decreased by only 4 percent. With growing populations and rapid urbanization, municipal waste will increase.

At the 2015 Philippine Apec Summit, while declining to commit action on the trash shipments, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau committed to fix his country’s waste laws. No progress has yet been made. A review is underway but with no mention nor any provision rectifying the loophole that justified Canada’s waste dumping in the Philippines. Trudeau’s much-touted environmental plan dedicated to “undoing the damage done by [the] Harper [administration]” makes no mention of how to manage Canada’s growing waste stream. And now Canada has come out with a policy that condones illegal transboundary shipment of wastes to poorer countries, effectively coddling illegal waste exporters and condemning poorer countries to embrace its waste exports.

Canada’s hands-off stance on illegal waste trade is not merely a Philippine problem but a global concern. Unless Trudeau steps up and strengthens his country’s compliance to the Basel Convention, and unless countries, including the Philippines and Canada, ratify and implement the Basel Ban Amendment that additionally prohibits the export of hazardous waste for any reason, including recycling, the Philippine case will certainly not be the last.

Richard Gutierrez is the chief executive officer of Ban Toxics.

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TAGS: Apec 2015, Basel Convention, Canada, garbage, Interpol, Justin Trudeau
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