Gazing out over Subic Bay one morning last month, onlookers will have witnessed a turning of the tide. Before them was a behemoth ship – the M/V Bavaria cargo vessel – chugging away from the Filipino coast. On board were 69 containers carrying some 1,500 tonnes of Canadian rubbish, which had – since 2013 – sat rotting in the tropical sun. Now, after six years of fierce dispute, the garbage is bound for Canada once more. It marked a substantial change in the refuse import-export industry, and sent a stark message to the West: no longer is your waste welcome in the developing world.

Like millions of other consignments, the rubbish had made its way to South East Asia for recycling. But what had left Vancouver marked as recyclable plastics was in fact household waste, said a furious Rodrigo Duterte, the Philipine president. So egregious were the actions of the Canadian company involved, Chronic Plastics Inc, that Duterte threatened to declare war on the north American nation. Mercifully, after equal measures of rhetoric and diplomacy, Canada agreed to repatriate the garbage.

But the issue of foreign waste in the developing world is far from resolved. In 2016, China was comfortably the largest importer of recyclable trash, consuming at least half of the world’s plastic output. It made good economic sense for the rising superpower – salvage processes were cheaper there, and Chinese manufacturers had high demand for repurposed plastics. But suddenly, in 2017, Beijing announced a ban on the import of all but the purest of scrap. A $24bn industry was demolished overnight, and Western waste dealers scrambled to find new markets.

By-and-large, they plumped for South East Asia. Not a world away geographically, but the region’s recycling infrastructure isn’t nearly as sophisticated as that in China. Where the Chinese had cleared 600,000 tons of imported plastic waste a month, their smaller neighbours have quickly become inundated with toxic refuse. As put by Malaysian environment minister Yeo Bee Yin, her country is fast becoming “the dumping ground of the world”.

And it’s often illegal waste that’s reaching South East Asian shores, an investigation carried out by Yin’s government revealed. They found plastic scrap from countries such as Australia, the US, the UK, Germany and other parts of Europe was being mislabeled to avoid local permits. Already five containers of falsely declared rubbish has been dispatched back to Spain from Malaysia – which has borne the brunt of re-directed waste – with some 3,000 tons of other illicit imports soon to be returned to other Western nations. Thailand and Vietnam are wrestling with the problem too, and have – alongside Malaysia – introduced legislation to prevent contaminated foreign junk reaching their ports.

Such restorative action can’t come quickly enough, experts have said. A report by the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA) released earlier this year identified water contamination, crop death, illness and the burning of plastic waste as critical side effects of the refuse deluge. In a particularly striking case last year, campaigners in Indonesia reported seeing plastic waste being burnt as fuel to heat tofu, with toxic fumes rising directly into the cooking enclosure.

GAIA lays blame squarely at the feet of the West, where the plastic waste originates. “As wealthy nations dump their low-grade plastic trash onto country after country in the global south, the least the international community can do is safeguard a country’s right to know exactly what is being sent to their shores,” said Beau Baconguis, the group’s Asia Pacific Plastics Coordinator.

It seems his message struck a chord with the global community, who’ve made new pledges to restrict shipments of unrecyclable plastics. Nearly every country in the world last month agreed an amendment to the so-called Basel convention – the legally binding framework on the trade of hazardous refuse – forcing Western exporters to obtain specific governmental consent from import nations. Rolph Payet, the UN’s ebullient Environment Executive Secretary heralded the agreement as “historic” – lauding the developing world’s newfound power to reject unmanageable shipments.

But not all believe that exports to poor countries should be restricted. The current crisis can be traced back to unscrupulous Chinese waste importers who – after the 2017 ban – shifted their corner-cutting operations abroad, says Adam Minter, an author and recycling industry expert.

“Rather than trying to create closed recycling loops in each country or each region, environmental activists would do better to make the global recycling trade cleaner and more efficient,” he said in a Bloomberg column, adding that richer countries should be doing more to help establish modern waste management systems in the regions they export to.

With both the developing world’s environmental credentials and national pride on the line, few can dispute that change is needed. To this end, novel uses for used material must be championed. The Canadians, as unpopular as they are in Manila, look to be leading on this – the 1,500 tons of returned waste is set to be burned at a cutting edge waste-to-energy facility in British Columbia. But with just 9% of the world’s plastic output being recycled annually, it seems that the root cause of the issue – our rampant plastic production – needs to change too.

It's a tough moment
LET'S STAY TOGETHER