The Malaysian government sent 11 shipping containers of plastic garbage back to Canada recently as the country takes a hard stand to try to keep illegal foreign waste from its shores.
But Canada is clamming up about how much garbage is being returned from other nations, as developing countries like Malaysia, Indonesia, Cambodia and the Philippines are demanding the world’s wealthiest nations stop using them as landfills.
Malaysia’s Environment Minister Yeo Bee Yin held a news conference in the port of Penang Monday to say Malaysia had taken the “unprecedented” step of sending 150 shipping containers of garbage, mostly plastic waste that cannot be recycled, back to 13 countries, including Canada, France, the United Kingdom, the United States, Spain and Japan.
“The Malaysian government is serious about combating the import of illegal wastes as we do not want to be the garbage bin of the world,” she said.
Yeo said Malaysia did not pay for any of the garbage to be returned, saying all of it was paid for by either the exporters or the shipping companies involved. Canadian authorities won’t say whether the federal government bore any of the cost for the Malaysian shipments.
Last spring Canada spent more than $1.1 million to bring 69 containers of illegally shipped garbage back across the Pacific from the Philippines, after spending nearly six years trying to convince the Philippines to dispose of it there.
Canada finally agreed to bring it back after Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte threatened to declare war on Canada and cut off diplomatic ties until the garbage was returned.
Duterte’s colourful commentary on the subject drew the world’s attention to the global garbage issue, and several other countries, including Malaysia, Indonesia and Cambodia, reported illegal shipments of foreign waste in their ports as well.
Environment Canada spokeswoman Gabrielle Lamontagne said in an email recently that “the government of Canada has been making positive progress with the (embassy) in Malaysia to repatriate the waste back to Canada.”
She said there is additional work underway to gather information about illegal waste shipments going overseas but could provide no other information. Environment Canada confirmed “a number” of containers arrived in Vancouver from Malaysia in December and January, but directed The Canadian Press to the Canada Border Services Agency for more information about them.
A CBSA spokeswoman, Judith Gadbois St-Cyr, said the agency could not provide any information about them, citing confidentiality for the companies involved. She said CBSA had no information about where and how the garbage was disposed of after it got back to Canada.
NDP environment critic Laurel Collins, a British Columbia MP, said the federal government owes it to Canadians to explain where waste is going and what is coming back. But she said Canada also needs to stop exporting garbage entirely.
“We should never be sending our garbage to other countries,” she said.
Canada is part of an international treaty that requires permits to ship garbage to countries that consider it a hazardous substance. Not a single permit has been issued since 2016, even though multiple shipments of Canadian garbage have been discovered in foreign ports.
The global trade in recyclables is not new but everything changed in 2018 when China closed its doors to most plastic waste after being the world’s largest importer for years. China had once imported much of the world’s used plastic to be melted down and reused in its manufacturing plants. But China complained that too much of the plastic waste was contaminated with regular garbage and the costs had grown to outweigh the benefits.
With China out of the game, countries like Canada suddenly had to find new places to send their recyclables because there are very few markets at home for the material. Canada has only about a dozen companies that recycle or burn plastics for waste domestically.
A recent report completed by Deloitte for Environment Canada reported only about nine per cent of the plastic waste produced by Canadians is recycled. Most of the rest ends up in landfills, while a small amount is burned for energy. Deloitte said Canada could keep 90 per cent of its plastic out of landfills by 2030 with an investment of between $4.3 billion and $8.6 billion to implement new regulations and build more than 160 new recycling plants.
Mia Rabson, The Canadian Press