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Foreign rubbish: Toxic colonialism or free trade cock-up?

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Cambodian authorities break open 83 containers packed with plastic waste originating from the US and Canada at the Sihanoukville Autonomous Port on July 16. Photo supplied

Foreign rubbish: Toxic colonialism or free trade cock-up?

The discovery of containers of garbage from the UK at Sri Lanka’s Colombo Port and Free Trade Zone, has triggered the usual national response.

There was mock panic in the Sri Lankan parliament. The rush to court, as courts have become not just the last resort but increasingly the first resort, if not the only resort.

And the editorial hectoring that garbage is the new frontier of neo-colonialism.

Unquestionably, the global waste trade is a substantial international operation.

Toxic colonialism is the trendy jargon in the literature on global waste.

India, Pakistan and Bangladesh are among the world’s top 20 dumpsters.

Sri Lanka is only a minor cog in the global garbage wheel, and the imported and apparently abandoned garbage looks more like a free trade cock-up not any neo-colonial conspiracy.

The question is how the government, agencies and the private companies implicated in this transaction will act to contain the environmental exposure of the opened and unopened containers, and how and when will they dispatch them to their intended destinations?

The government and its agencies have their work cut out plugging the loopholes that led to this mess, or forever end Sri Lanka being a transfer station – euphemistically called “entrepot” – in the global waste trade if it is not serious about developing the industrial knowhow for dealing with waste.

The British government has reportedly indicated its readiness to assist in dealing with the environmental fallouts and to even take back the containers.

It would seem that the whole operation had been started under some fanciful packaging of garbage, such as opening Colombo to “entrepot trade” (as if just free trade is not enough), and turning it into a “commercial hub.”

It is fair to ask if anything other than foreign garbage has benefited from this entrepot and hub transactions, and what benefit, if any, has accrued to Sri Lanka’s economy, technology and society as a result of these fancy trading hubs?

What social and environmental cost?

Sure, there would have been profits to the private parties to these transactions, but at what social and environmental cost?

Government submissions before the Court of Appeal have indicated that there are around 1,000 unclaimed garbage containers in the port’s yards.

That is more than four times the 241 British containers whose discovery started the latest garbage saga.

According to Finance Minister Mangala Samaraweera’s statement to parliament, “a total of 2,964,850kg of garbage had been imported to Sri Lanka, while only 283,405kg had been re-exported”.

The minister’s kilograms do not match the government lawyer’s container count presented in court.

We do not know what period of time they are talking about.

Or how many more containers have come and gone since the entrepot operations began.

And what residual waste from them is left behind not only in Colombo but other hub locations as well?

The government should make a full public disclosure of the entire operations of the Commercial Hub initiative over the past 15 years, and the extent of garbage and non-garbage trade in these operations.

In a statement in parliament on July 26, Minister Samaraweera railed that the “the importer of the container loads of garbage to Sri Lanka had violated all laws and regulations”, including Customs Ordinance, the Environment Act and the Basel Convention.

According to the minister, the government is looking into the possibility of filing criminal charges against those involved in the import of garbage from Britain, and the minister went on to suggest that a much stronger punishment than the usual fine of three times the value of imports under customs regulations was warranted.

But stronger punishment requires legislative authorisation in parliament, and there is nothing to suggest changes are being considered.

Nor has there been any suggestion in parliament from either the government or the opposition that the whole entrepot trade in garbage should be seriously revisited.

The preferred assumption seems to be that the 241 garbage containers from Britain was a one-off bad apple case and nothing more needs to be done than punishing the offenders.

The Minister and the editorial commentaries are also astonished that these containers could have been sent from Britain in violation of the Basel Convention, which bans the export of hazardous waste.

The fact of the matter is that there is no global policing of garbage shipments to enforce the Basel Convention.

And once trading in garbage between countries was enabled through legislation and regulations, the private actors and companies at either end of the transaction have got used to operating with impunity.

This pattern is quite evident from the recent flare-ups in garbage trade in a number of Southeast Asian countries including Cambodia, the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia.

And Sri Lanka is no exception, except those who inspired the legal and regulatory changes, in 2013, to enable trading in garbage came up with the clever concepts of entrepot trade and commercial hubs.

Garbage will be imported for the purpose of “resource recovery” and re-exported.

This argument is being bandied around even now by some of the parties who brought home the 241 garbage containers from Britain.

Cultural rejection of imported waste

But someone has to explain the worthiness of resources buried in used and dumped British mattresses that they could be imported, processed and re-exported.

What niche technology is developed and internalised in this exercise?

As examples go, there are two countries at either end of the spectrum.

One is China, which deliberately chose to import recycled garbage from the West as part of its modern industrial take-off.

The operation was massive given China’s size and capacity and it went on for decades – importing recycled material (mostly plastic), reprocessing and exporting them as different products.

But it could not go on indefinitely as China was having to deal with the mounting residual waste and given its own economic expansion and prosperity.

In January last year, China shut its doors to foreign plastic waste. The ban on yang laji (foreign rubbish) became a cultural rejection of imported waste.

China’s closure put market pressure on other neighbouring countries to provide the substitution for China.

They too have woken up to the fallouts from this business, and sooner or later Western societies will have to come to terms with their own consumption levels and the moral escape of sending their massive plastic waste elsewhere as recyclables.

It is not only plastic, but the entire end of the chain leftovers of the computer universe.

African and the three South Asian countries have been the main recipients of computer waste.

For how long, is the question.

At the other end is Sweden, the only Western country to “import” waste, but for diametrically opposite reasons.

Sweden processes and recycles its national waste virtually 100 per cent.

In the process, it has built so much capacity for waste treatment in many forms that it has to import waste to feed its treatment plants.

Sri Lanka and other countries like Cambodia are too small to emulate China, and are not in the same plane technologically as Sweden to toy with imported garbage.

Sri Lanka’s smallness has its advantages in that it can find economic wherewithal for its people without bringing in mattresses for recovering resources.

As for garbage, the Sri Lankan government should find a way to process domestic garbage without playing into the hands busybodies interested in fancy entrepot trade and garbage hubs. the island (sri Lanka)

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