By Sarah Burch
In countries like the United States, an “out of sight, out of mind” mentality is easy to have when it comes to waste. But, where does this waste go after we throw it down the trash chute? While it is easy for those in developed nations to forget about the garbage we create, it is not so easy for those in developing countries - especially throughout Asia - where Western garbage is dumped. In 2017, China imported 12.6 billion pounds of garbage, chiefly from the US, UK, and Japan. While their 2018 import ban on garbage has allowed them a breath of fresh air, it simultaneously displaced a massive amount of trash. Despite the progress countries like China are able to make in terms of development, it is a decades-long process to escape waste colonialism. As the Global North continues to export their trash, it will only keep others in a state of perpetual development. Asia can no longer be the Global North’s trash can, and the countries that have the means need to prioritize management of their waste for both the environment and people.
Waste colonialism was a term first coined in 1989 at the UN Basel Convention. The Basel Convention is an international treaty designed to reduce the trade of hazardous waste- specifically focusing on movement of waste from the Global North to the Global South. Though this was the focus of the convention, waste colonialism still persists 30 years later. Waste colonialism is described as “waste and pollution are part of the domination of one group in their homeland by another group,” according to Discard Studies. Most often, it is used in the aforementioned context of the transboundary movement of waste from areas of privilege, like the Global North, to areas of lower affluence, like the Global South. Though the Basel Convention attempted to address this deep-rooted problem by requiring specific circumstances that allow waste exporting to occur, it only scratched the surface of what can and should be done. Furthermore, some countries like the United States are only signatories to the convention, which allows them to claim support whilst also not having to adhere to any rules set forth. Though the convention may have been well intentioned and progressive for the time, no concrete solutions have been formulated to help the developing world to rid them of the waste burden.
The Basel Convention may currently be the most effective tool to fight against waste colonialism, but as Asian countries develop, they should be able to lessen the amount of garbage they import as China did in 2018. However, on one hand, China’s ban could displace up to 110 million tons of plastic waste alone. This garbage needs somewhere to go, and instead of being dealt with by the countries that made it, it is simply being moved elsewhere, mainly to Southeast Asian countries like Malaysia, Thailand, and Vietnam. These countries do not have the infrastructure or affluence to deal with this influx of garbage, putting them in a complicated situation of having to face rising imports and figure out what to do with all of this imported waste.
Some countries are attempting to stand up to violations of waste regulation. For example, in 2019 the Malayasian environmental minister Yeo Bee Yin announced the country would send back 3,000 tons of waste to countries like Australia and the UK due to contamination, false labelling, and more. She stated “what the citizens of the UK [and other countries] 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,” she said. If the billions of tons of garbage were not enough, much of the waste sent abroad is not actually recyclable. While people in places like the United States may throw their bottles into the recycling bin, it will often be landfilled with other waste despite labels stating otherwise. Not only is this detrimental to the environment, but it leaves importing countries with tons of waste they cannot process.
Along with this, and despite initiatives like the Basel Convention, the Global North continues to disregard international law and illegally ships more waste. In 2015, 48 containers of rotting household waste from Canada were found in the Port of Manila in thePhilippines. This was after 50 containers (containers of what?) were also found in 2013. While NGOs like Greenpeace and the Basel Action Network condemned Canada, there have been little to no consequences for the complete neglect of the Philippines, their people, and the environment. This is just one of many instances of the developed world’s attempt to hinder the development of places like Southeast Asia.
This hindrance is only furthered by the Global North’s rhetoric when it comes to pollution and waste management. Rather than working together to solve these issues, developed nations often place blame on the Global South for contributing most to global pollution. A case study from the NGO Ocean Conservancy and the Asia-Pacific region (which is headed nearly all by Americans) put out a report in 2015 making recommendations on how to reduce ocean pollution. The report placed heavy pressure on waste-importing countries to improve on their management of waste. The NGO was then called out by hundreds of organizations around the world, but chiefly environmental groups in the Asia-Pacific region. The response from these various organizations highlights the fact that Ocean Conservancy places emphasis on improving management of “an ever-increasing supply of plastics,” rather than reducing plastic use in the first place. They also point out that corporations that benefit from the current system, like Coca Cola, were on the Steering Committee of the report. The call outs tell Ocean Conservancy that their suggested methods are not only offensive to the work already being done in the Global South, but also that said methods “may well dismantle real solutions being implemented in the Asia-Pacific region.
These actions are a clear example of the lack of effort put in by the Global North to actively reduce waste, pollution, and environmental harm. While they can put out reports and be signatories on UN conventions, they do not do the work that they expect the rest of the world to do for them. To allow the further development of Southeast Asia, and prevent a pollution catastrophe, countries like the US, UK, and Japan need to head the initiative to change how our consumer economy works. Rather than ignoring the successful solutions used by people experiencing this waste crisis firsthand, the corporations and governments of the Global North should support them and take their advice. Instead of promoting practices in international bodies like the UN that will solely benefit the waste-exporting countries, the Global North should promote the practices already being used. For example, assisting waste collector unions like in Pune, India greatly helped both the environment and livelihoods of the workers. It can even start from the Global North itself, as seen in San Francisco. Here, the city slowly mandated that residents recycle and compost. Through methods like this, waste-exporting countries can mitigate waste colonialism from home, and take direct action rather than placing it on the Global South. Because, it is highly unlikely that other developing Asian nations will be able to successfully impose strict regulations like China has, and they should not be expected to. In reality, developed nations should no longer promote a system in which consumer goods are designed to be dumped. This approach is what allows the continuation of colonial practices by using other’s land as a disposal. If the Global North will not allow the countries they continue to colonize to find solutions, they should take the initiative themselves and promote a more circular economy.
Sarah Burch is an undergraduate student at George Washington University majoring in International Affairs with a concentration in International Environmental Studies and a minor in Journalism. She is interested in international sustainability efforts and sustainable tourism. In the past, she has worked as an intern in the US House of Representatives, and is currently assisting in research on sustainable tourism in the Arctic region at GWU.