‘Rubbish Wars’: South-East Asia Contests Western Approach to Recycling

When we think of war, we often think of violent battles, militaries, human casualty and death. Few would consider tonnes of waste a potential catalyst for inter-state conflict. Fewer would accept environmental injustice a war crime. Yet, in the current era of mass consumption and increasing demand for single-use products, rubbish can be exceedingly violent.

The President of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, contested the traditional understanding of war by declaring war on Canada in a diplomatic dispute this April. The dispute arose over 69 shipping containers containing 1,500 tonnes of Canadian waste being dumped in Filipino ports in 2013-2014, waste products that were falsely declared as recyclable plastic scraps by a private corporation. Duterte asserted “I will declare war against them. I will advise Canada that your garbage is on the way. Prepare a grand reception. Eat if you want to… Your garbage is coming home”. The Philippines made several diplomatic protests to Canada since a 2016 court ruled the waste must be returned to its country of origin. The Canadian government claimed the waste was the result of a commercial transaction done in the absence of government consent. Whilst Canada agreed to take the rubbish back, they missed the May 26 deadline set by Manila, fuelling the diplomatic dispute further.

The Canadian government seems unwilling to retrieve its citizens’ waste. Canadian Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, claimed Canadian regulations prevented the waste being returned to Canada. As these legalities have now been resolved, Trudeau claimed it was “theoretically possible” for the Philippines to return the 1,500 tonnes of Canadian rubbish. A further government statement declared: “The removal will be complete by the end of June, as the waste must be safely treated to meet Canadian health and safety requirements”. These statements imply the Philippines lacks adequate health and safety regulations, allowing to sit in its ports containers of waste which, on return to Canada, must be “safely treated”. In both instances, it seems the Canadian government views the Philippine population and environment as holding less worth than its own. There appears to be one condition for the Philippines, and another – more tightly regulated – for Canada. This dispute exposes a serious environmental injustice. It is highly unethical, immoral and colonial for Canada to burden the Philippines with waste produced by its citizens. While the Canadian government claims to have been unaware of the transportation of the containers, this offers no reason as to why Manila should hold 1,500 tonnes of Canadian waste. The Canadian government must be held accountable for the actions of its representatives, especially as powerful corporations are involved. Given the injustice at stake, it seems reasonable for Duterte to declare ‘war’.

The Malaysian government has expressed a similar frustration with western exports of household waste being dumped in its ports, causing serious harm to its natural environment and health of its citizens. Yeo Bee Yin, Minister of Energy, Science, Technology, Environment and Climate Change, asserted that “Malaysia will not be the dumping ground of the world… We will fight back. Even though we are a small country, we can’t be bullied by developed countries”. In April, a Malaysian government investigation revealed waste from the UK, Australia, US, and Germany was being transported illegally, declared as alternative imports. On May 28, Malaysian representatives announced that 3000 tonnes of illegally imported plastic waste from the UK, US, Australia, Japan, France and Canada will be returned to the countries of origin immediately. To date, five containers of illegal rubbish have been sent back to Spain, while 100 tonnes of Australian plastic waste are to be returned. Yeo Bee Yin stated the Malaysian governments stance on this issue: “What the citizens of the UK think they have sent for recycling are actually being dumped in our country… Malaysians have a right to clean air, clean water and a clean environment to live in, just like citizens of developed nations”. Again, this dispute highlights an immense environmental injustice. It is unethical that Malaysia and its citizens should deal with tonnes of western waste merely because wealthy nations can’t be bothered to deal with it themselves. This colonising approach to recycling must be confronted. Western countries must be held accountable for this injustice, constructing efficient domestic methods of recycling, rather than dumping it overseas. Take responsibility and create sound recycling procedures in western countries.

These “rubbish wars” are violent transfers of unwanted waste, whereby South-East Asian countries are expected to take on the burden of foreign rubbish. The Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia and Vietnam have experienced an immense build-up of foreign recycling, creating wastelands of plastic and toxic waste in the surrounding environment. Given that only 9% of plastic across the world is properly recycled, the majority of western waste products end up in overseas landfills or illegally incinerated. In turn, poisonous fumes seep into the earth’s atmosphere, harming human beings and the planet. Western waste management and recycling policies are grounded in an unethical transfer of responsibility to overseas nations. Western governments hold an obligation to prevent this colonising approach to recycling, as the growing acceptance of environmental values implies western populations would not support such an approach. Instead, western countries must formulate effective domestic infrastructure and begin to take responsibility for the consequences of cultures of mass consumerism and consumption.

In response to this colonising approach to recycling, Malaysia and the Philippines are rightly ‘fighting’ back. Yet, without overlooking the fundamental issues with the colonising approach to waste management and recycling, equating environmental issues with violence and war is highly problematic. When faced with an immense environmental injustice, the violent rhetoric of war is a discourse that governments should not adopt so easily. The environmental movement is grounded in a concern for nature, the planet and mutual co-operation, not violence, war and conflict. While the latter attributes are all inextricably bound to all environmental issues, engaging with violent discourses of war only legitimises the existence of war further. The problem is, that if ‘war’ is understood as a dispute concerning tonnes of western waste dumped in overseas ports, war becomes an entity that many would accept as reasonable. It is important to not view environmental disputes as “rubbish wars”, as war is a practice that must always be contested, never tolerated. Not to dismiss the rights of the Malaysian and Philippine governments in these cases, as soon as environmental disputes are equated with war, any concern for the planet is replaced by a concern for violent domination over an enemy. Countries across the globe must realise that a concern for environmental justice must remain distinct from a concern to dominate an enemy by violent means. The language engaged with in environmental disputes must remain peaceful in order to achieve progress. If we can separate environmentalism from the violence of war, the environmental movement will have greater impact.

Olivia Abbott