MANILA, Philippines – Because the Canadian government can't return the garbage that was illegally shipped out of its country, it is requesting the Philippines to process it here instead.
Canadian Ambassador Neil Reeder told the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) during an April 24 meeting that his government "would like to explore with the Philippines options for processing the rest of the shipment – in accordance with Philippine law – in the Philippines."
The diplomat is referring to 50 container vans from Canada that have been arriving in batches at the Manila Port since June 2013. Philippine government officials have opened 18 container vans, revealing their contents of mixed garbage, including non-recyclable plastics, waste paper, household waste, and used adult diapers.
The discovery led the Bureau of Customs (BOC) to file a case against Philippine-based importer Chronic Plastics for smuggling in the garbage, which were misdeclared as "plastic scraps" intended for recycling.
Ambassador Reeder made the suggestion during a meeting with DFA officials, based on an August 12 record of the case or "aide memoire" obtained by Rappler.
DENR Secretary Ramon Paje confirmed to Rappler on October 9 that the treatment of the illegal waste in the Philippines was one of the options being explored by an interagency committee formed specifically to deal with the matter.
The interagency committee is composed of the DENR, DFA, and the BOC.
If the option is pursued, all treatment costs should be shouldered by the Canadian government, he added.
The container vans have been in the Philippines for more than 460 days and have cost the Philippine government around P66 million (US$1.5 million) in storage costs, estimates health advocacy group Ang Nars.
The garbage was exported to the Philippines by Chronic Incorporated, a company based in Ontario, Canada.
Since March, the DFA has sent letters to the Canadian embassy, requesting for assistance in immediately returning the illegal garbage back to Canada.
Based on the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes, which both the Philippines and Canada have ratified, the country from which the waste originated is responsible for returning the waste to its port of origin "within 30 days from the time the State of export has been informed about the illegal traffic."
The convention also states that the obligation for such waste to be managed in an environmentally sound manner "may not under any circumstances be transferred to the States of import or transit."
But in June 9, three months after the DFA letter, Reeder told the DFA that the Canadian government "has no domestic or international authority to compel the shipper to return the shipment to Canada."
He also said the owner of exporter Chronic Incorporated, Jim Makris, "has not been successful to date in finding a third country to which the shipment could be sent."
Reeder explained that while Canadian law imposes penalties on violations of import and export laws, it does not provide a mechanism to compel the return of illegal shipments to the port of origin.
The BOC questions the position of the Canadian Embassy, saying that World Trade Organization commitments hold the Canadian government responsible for ensuring its shipments to other countries are safe and comply with international agreements.
The interagency committee is yet to decide whether or not to take Reeder's suggestion.
But Paje emphasized that while the idea is being considered, his department sees re-export as the only option.
If the waste is treated in the Philippines, the case may set a "troubling precedent" marking the Philippines as a "dumping ground" for foreign garbage, according to the DENR's position as recorded in the aide memoire.
Aside from violating international agreements, both the Philippine-based importer and Canada-based exported violated local laws, specifically Republic Act 6969, said DENR Environment Management Bureau Director Juan Cuna (Toxic Substance and Hazardous Wastes and Nuclear Wastes Control Act of 1990).
Meanwhile, the 50 container vans continue to be a burden to the Philippine government.
The Department of Health (DOH) recommends the disinfection of the container vans because of the health risks they pose to port workers and communities in the port area.
The interagency committee pegs the cost of transferring them to a treatment site at P400,000 ($8,900) or P8,000 ($179) per container van. The disinfection process will cost P900,000 ($20,100) or P18,000 ($402) per container van.
Though the container vans are in the legal custody of the BOC, the agency says it does not have the money to pay for these costs.
Pressure the exporter
Despite violations of the Basel Convention, the interagency committee has chosen to approach the case as a "commercial transaction between a Philippine importer and a Canadian exporter," said DFA spokesperson Charles Jose.
Dealing with the case as a violation of the Basel Convention, which would require coordination with the convention's secretariat, would be the last resort, decided the committee.
The DENR said that with enough pressure, the illegally shipped garbage could be dealt with properly without resorting to the Basel Convention.
For instance, in 2001, the Japanese government bore the cost of the removal of container vans full of domestic and hospital waste due to heavy pressure from the media and letters from DFA and the DENR. The Japanese government also filed charges against the Japanese exporter.
Reeder made a similar suggestion for the Philippine and Canadian governments to "pressure" Chronic Incorporated to remove the containers by threatening to ban the company from doing business with the Philippines and other countries.
Meanwhile, health and environmental advocates continue to call on the Philippine government to ratify the Basel Ban Amendment, a proposed provision to the convention that completely prohibits developed countries from transporting garbage to poorer countries.
Currently, the convention allows the transport of waste so long as the developing country gives its written consent.
More than 23,800 people have signed an online petition demanding the Canadian embassy Manila to re-export the container vans of garbage back to Canada.
Pia Ranada covers the Office of the President and Bangsamoro regional issues for Rappler. While helping out with desk duties, she also watches the environment sector and the local government of Quezon City. For tips or story suggestions, you can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.