The discovery of 83 containers containing plastic, and possibly other wastes, such as e-waste, biowaste and medi- waste that could have been hidden among the tonnes of plastic trash, comes on the heels of the prime minister’s rather stern warning last Friday.
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That the discovery of these containers was executed three days after the premier’s statement of zero import of waste of any form into Cambodia, begs a series of questions. How come such incidents have not been reported before? How long have these imports gone unnoticed? Why was the discovery made merely days after the premier spoke? Would the containers be released if the instruction was not issued by the prime minister? How many shipments have entered Cambodia unnoticed? Most importantly, were they toxic?
Is Cambodia the next dumping ground for toxic waste after countries like Malaysia, Vietnam, Indonesia, Thailand, India rejected such imports? Or has it always been one of the designated final destination?
Where are the western ideals of human rights in this aspect? Is the western hypocrisy of wanting to “punish” Cambodia with sanctions for failing to apparently apply democratic practices not adopted by their enterprises that ship the waste secreted by their country? Where is the issue of human rights here? What about the rights of children, and those who live near dumpsites, the very people who will be affected by the waste, which would either be buried or decimated in an open fire as Cambodia does not own industrial incinerators.
When China banned 24 types of solid waste last September, the US, United Kingdom, Australia and Japan realised they were saddled by a big problem. Until last year, China accepted 70 percent of the world’s electronic waste comprising discarded computers, cell phones, printers, televisions, microwaves, smoke alarms, and other electronic equipment and parts. After China stopped accepting e-waste for environmental reasons, Europe and North America began shipping it to Southeast Asia, including Cambodia.
If the waste is illegally burnt (to clear the evidence of assumedly unrecorded waste shipments), the toxic fumes can kill or incapacitate anyone who is exposed to the pollution.
Toxic waste also harms animals and plants, and the ecosystem because the residue ends up in the ground and rivers, poisoning groundwater. Some toxins, such as mercury and lead, remain in the environment for hundreds of years because it cannot be destroyed.
This incident brings to mind the dumping of some 3,000 tonnes of 20-year-old sludge which was highly tainted with mercury. In 1998, an irresponsible, corrupt and inept official allegedly authorised a shipment containing toxic waste from Taiwan’s Formosa Chemicals & Fibre Corp to the Kingdom. Taiwanese freighter Chang Shun docked at the Sihanoukville port to unload the highly toxic heavy metal mercury waste.
Last Tuesday’s incident bears a likeness to the 1998 shipment where the alleged perpetrators imported poisonous waste into Cambodia purpotedly because it had the permission to do so, possibly for a fee. If not for the sudden inspection following Mr Hun Sen’s warning, the waste might have slipped past the authorities. The incident is so dire, one can’t help asking if the authorities in charge of imports and exports were blinded by their greed? Have they no conscience that innocent lives would be exposed to potentially hazardous conditions.
In Februrary this year, Von Hernandez, global coordinator for Break Free from Plastic, said what was happening in Asia and Africa, showed how bankrupt the recycling system really is. He said, “Consumers, especially those in the West, are conditioned to believe that when they separate their recyclables and throw them out, it would properly be taken care of. But that has been exposed as a myth.”
The Basel Convention, which governs international waste trade, was adopted in 1989 in response to egregious cases of hazardous waste dumping on communities in Africa, the Caribbean and Asia.
According to whenonearth.net, up to 20 countries are dumpsite locations for developed countries. They comprise Ghana, China, Nigeria, Philippines, Somalia, India, Vietnam, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Ivory Coast, Indonesia, Kenya, Guinea, Haiti, Mexico, Zimbabwe, Guinea-Bissau, Lebanon, South Africa and, surprisingly, Sweden. Is Cambodia number 21? One hopes not.
It is estimated that garbage generated annually in the world amounts to an average of 2.12 billion tonnes per year. In many cases, corruption plays a big role in enabling garbage, including highly toxic and contaminated medical, e-waste and bio-waste, to breach entrypoints in less developed countries.
Some think it can generate cheap energy, which is a fallacy. Others believe that some waste can be separated to be reused or recycled.Regardless, human greed and ignorance have played into the hands of irresponsible corporates that view this as a legitimate business.
Another fallacy is the hope of recovering precious metals from electronic devices which also contain heavy metals like lead, mercury, cadmium and beryllium, as well as polluting polyvinyl chloride plastic, and hazardous chemicals, such as brominated flame retardants, which can harm human health and the environment.
In 2016, the estimated value of recoverable materials in global e-waste was $64.6 billion but only 20 percent of valuable materials was properly recovered as recyclables. The larger portion is dumped into landfills where leachate from decaying toxic chemicals contaminate water supply.
In future, Cambodia must exercise caution over claims made by corporations when it comes to the clean and safe disposal of waste. It must not allow or even contemplate discussions regarding this. To be safe, waste imports must be banned unequivocally.