The Great Garbage Migration

When one man’s trash becomes another’s toxic disaster.
Tuesday 12 November 2019
Indonesian officials check one of the 49 containers loaded with garbage in Batam Island. Photo: Andaru / AFP

While the Cheeto-in-Chief charges forward with his ideological crusade about border walls and immigration, developing countries are dealing with a mass migration of a different kind – trash. Soon, there will be a new Wonders of the World, The Great Wall of Southeast Asia, made of G7 nations’ garbage. How did dumping in someone else’s country become a general practice and a multibillion-dollar global industry?

Not in my backyard

When nuclear-capable countries had to dispose of radioactive waste after World War II, they looked everywhere but their own backyards. Between 1946 and 1993, 13 nuclear-capable nations used the ocean as a dumping ground, following the United States’ lead. Transferring hazardous waste from high-income countries to poorer developing nations became a norm in the late 1970s, exploiting weak governance, lower environmental standards and corruption of the Mediterranean, Southeast Asia and African countries. The Global South may have broken free from colonisation, but toxic colonialism has just begun.

For a while it seemed like the perfect solution as developed countries continued to generate 95% of the world’s total hazardous waste, until a flurry of environmental disasters involving toxic contamination surfaced around the 1980s, exposing the dirty side of global waste trade.

Rubbish pickers shifting through a mountain of garbage at the Bantar Gebang landfill, Indonesia. Photo: Santirta Martendano / AFP

Broken multilateral system

Addressing the intensifying public outrage, the United Nations Governing Council initiated a global convention on transboundary movement of hazardous waste in June 1987. The outcome was a multinational environmental agreement, the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal (The Basel Convention).

This was signed and ratified by 146 parties including NGOs, international agencies and 104 countries, not including the US, entering into force on 5 May 1992. Seemingly, the Basel Convention reduces and restricts the transboundary movement of hazardous waste. However, the weak control based on prior informed consent means waste-producing countries could still legally pay poorer countries to accept toxic waste, avoiding waste reduction whilst turning trash into a commodity.

Plastic cities

When capitalism and plastic mass production took off in the 1950s, the world fell into an addiction. From vinyl and Barbies to false teeth and piano keys, plastic took over our lives. At that time, only 2 million tonnes of plastic were generated annually. Six decades of urbanisation later, in 2015, total plastic production hit 8,300 million tonnes, more than one tonne of plastic for every person alive. Our reliance on convenience and obsession with newness gave rise to a throwaway society, generating multi-million tonnes of non-biodegradable discards.

In the 1980s when floating plastic islands were discovered in the Pacific and dead whales washed ashore with stomachs full of plastic, people were horrified. Recycling was meant to manage this non-biodegradable polymer, but why is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch still growing exponentially?

A Yemeni youth looks behind him as he sits on a chair at a garbage dump in Taez, in southwestern Yemen. Photo: Ahmad al-Bahsa / AFP

The recycling myth

A sense of achievement comes with accurately categorising waste into coloured bins because we are doing our part…right? Statistics show that only 20% of the world’s plastic waste is recycled, the rest are incinerated or discarded into illegal landfills, including the ocean. Reportedly, of the 8,300 million metric tonnes of plastic produced, 5,800 million tonnes is single-use plastic. 80% goes down the chute to landfills, 500 million tonnes are sent for recycling with only 20% still in circulation.

G7 nations’ impressive waste collection schedule disguises the reality that if these countries were to manage and contain their own plastic waste, processing it would cost significantly more. Therefore, 95% of plastic waste collected in the European Union and 70% in the US were sold to China where they are repurposed by plastic manufacturers, making plastic waste the new commodity.

Poor waste management standards in developing nations especially East Asia and Pacific countries accounted for 60% of global mismanaged plastic waste in 2010 with China, Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam contributing 7-13kg of marine plastic waste per person.

Learning to minimise and separate waste at source is our basic civic responsibility. “Out of sight, out of mind” just doesn’t cut it anymore. We need to buck up, get educated or risk drowning in our own toxic waste. Every little bit you do helps.

This article is an excerpt from UNRESERVED’s October 2019 issue from the article THE GREAT GARBAGE MIGRATION

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