MANILA - The Philippines on Friday (May 31) sent back truckloads of garbage exported by Canada, a festering issue that eroded ties between Manila and Ottawa for years, even as environmental activists called for a wider, permanent ban on such imports following reports of other trash shipments from Australia and Hong Kong.
Sixty-nine containers containing some 2,500 tonnes of household waste, including plastic bottles, bags, newspapers and used adult diapers, rotting away in ports in Manila for six years were loaded late on Thursday (May 30) on the Bavaria, a 40,000-tonne, Liberia-registered container ship.
The ship then set sail from Subic, a former US naval base and shipping port two hours north of Manila, early on Friday morning to its next port call in Kaohsiung, Taiwan, en route to Vancouver, where it is scheduled to dock in 20 days.
Canada paid for the cost of shipping the trash, pegged at some 10 million pesos (S$260,000).
“Baaaaaaaaa bye, as we say it… The garbage is gone, good riddance,” Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin wrote on Twitter, along with images of the vessel leaving.
The row centred on 103 containers of garbage shipped in batches from Canada to the Philippines in 2013 and 2014. The contents of 34 containers were disposed off, including in a landfill.
All the containers were falsely declared by a private firm as recyclable plastic scrap, prompting Philippine officials to ask Canada to take back the remaining 69 containers.
The issue had polluted Manila-Ottawa ties for years. But it blew up when President Rodrigo Duterte said in April: “Let’s fight Canada. I will declare war against them.”
Canada pledged to take back the waste, but missed a Manila-imposed May 15 deadline. The Philippines then recalled its envoys in Ottawa.
Mr Duterte’s spokesman Salvador Panelo ratcheted up the pressure by saying Manila would ship the trash back on its own “immediately” and threatened to dump the waste in Canadian waters.
Mr Locsin on Friday declared the row with Canada over, and advised all recalled Philippine diplomats to return to Canada.
“Get your flights back. Thanks, and sorry for the trouble you went through to drive home a point… This is the end of the matter… There’s more to garbage between us,” he tweeted.
But environmental activists called on the government to do more, as there were other shipments of rubbish making it to the Philippines.
Early this month (May), over 200 tonnes of rubbish inside a 40ft container from Australia landed in Manila.
Another shipment of 26 tonnes of mixed plastics, misdeclared as “assorted electronic accessories”, from Hong Kong, meanwhile, were found at a port on Mindanao island, in the southern Philippines.
Earlier this year (2019), the Philippines shipped back to South Korea 6,500 tonnes of garbage misdeclared as plastic flakes. Customs officials said there were still 10 containers still sitting in ports in Manila.
“Why do we need to repeatedly remind the world that we are not a garbage dump? Illegal waste dumping in developing countries should be stopped at all costs. We refuse to be treated as rich countries’ trash dumps,” said Ms Abigail Aguilar, campaigner for Greenpeace Southeast Asia.
Mr Locsin said a ban on waste imports will be in place, as long as Mr Duterte sits as president.
Malaysia earlier announced it was shipping 450 tonnes of imported plastic waste back to its sources, including Australia, Bangladesh, Canada, China, Japan, Saudi Arabia and the United States.
For years China had received the bulk of scrap plastic from around the world, but closed its doors to foreign refuse last year in an effort to clean up its environment.
Huge quantities of waste plastic have since been re-directed to South-east Asia, including Malaysia, Indonesia and, to a lesser degree, the Philippines.
“We’ve seen pristine communities... transformed into dumpsites because of a tsunami of waste shipments from the US, UK and Australia as a result of the China ban,” said Mr Von Hernandez, global coordinator from Break Free From Plastic advocacy group.
Global concern over plastic pollution has been spurred by shocking images of waste-clogged rivers in South-east Asia and accounts of dead sea creatures found with kilos of refuse in their stomachs.
Around 300 million tonnes of plastic are produced every year, according to the Worldwide Fund for Nature, with much of it ending up in landfills or polluting the seas, in what has become a growing international crisis.