MANILA (PHILIPPINE DAILY INQUIRER/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) -As the country observes Zero Waste Month, a piece of happy news for a change: A Customs official was honored this week for standing up and pushing back against the dumping of foreign waste-a problem that advocates warn will continue to pile up if the government does not heed calls to enact crucial policies, including a comprehensive ban on all waste imports.
The environment watchdog EcoWaste Coalition lauded John Simon, Bureau of Customs (BOC) district collector from Northern Mindanao, and gave him the Environmental Justice Award for his "exemplary leadership, unfaltering dedication and focused action to protect public health and the environment from hazardous waste from overseas," which led to the return of 7,408 metric tons of illegal waste shipments to South Korea.
Mr Simon will also be receiving an award from the United Nations Environment Programme next month, as well as the 2020 Asia Environmental Enforcement Award by the World Customs Organization - a first in BOC's history.
Mr Simon proves that there are men and women in government who remain committed and principled public servants.
As EcoWaste Coalition president Eileen Sison noted in a statement, Simon worked doggedly to "uphold our country's tariff and customs and environmental laws…"
He initiated bilateral negotiations with South Korea shortly after the consignee failed to secure an import permit from the Department of Environment and Natural Resources for the trash, which was misdeclared as "plastic synthetic flakes."
The waste imports arrived from Pyeongtaek City, South Korea, in two batches at the Mindanao Container Terminal in Tagoloan in 2018, and were sent back in seven batches packed in 364 containers between Jan 13, 2019 and Sept 15, 2020, even amid the Covid-19 pandemic and despite complex diplomatic channels.
In his message acknowledging the recognition bestowed on him, Simon said "[E]nvironmental justice demands that we assert our sovereign right not to be treated as dumping ground for wastes from abroad that can put the health of our people and that of our ecosystems in harm's way."
South Korea is not the only country to have sent its waste to Philippine shores. One of the most high-profile cases involved Canada, which exported waste to the country between 2013 and 2014 through a private company and without the government's consent.
The 2,400-ton trash was mislabelled as plastics for recycling, and was sent back to Canada in May 2019 after a local court declared it illegal.
In the report "Waste Trade in the Philippines" released in March last year, Greenpeace Philippines and EcoWaste Coalition warned that "various other waste shipments - municipal or toxic waste, from all around the world - were regularly entering the country through both legal and illegal means."
And the Philippines, the report said, will remain a preferred destination for waste shipments as long as the government continues to refuse calls to enforce a comprehensive ban on all waste imports.
Advocates point to loopholes in the laws that have made the country "wide open" to both illegal and "legitimised" waste trade, particularly those that ban only hazardous and toxic wastes while allowing other types of wastes such as plastic bottles, electronic and electrical equipment, used batteries, etc, to still be imported and subsequently processed, whether through recycling or disposal.
"The country will remain vulnerable to continued exploitation if it does not take policy measures to close its borders against waste trade," the Greenpeace/EcoWaste report stated, further noting that while Asean states such as Indonesia, Malaysia, and Brunei have ratified the Basel Ban Amendment, which prohibits the importation of hazardous wastes from developed countries to less developed ones, the Philippines has yet to take action on it.
It added that the country must also immediately enforce a comprehensive ban on all waste importation.
Mr Simon - the country's first Environmental Justice awardee - expressed hopes that his award would inspire others to persevere in protecting the country's borders from foreign waste dumping, because the job "is too big for one agency to accomplish."
Will other government officials heed his call?
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