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Illegal garbage dispute: Why can’t Canada be like Japan?

MANILA, Philippines – There are 103 container vans of garbage sitting on a raw wound between the Philippines and Canada.

But it’s not the first wound of its kind. Way back in 1999, around 120 container vans of trash from Japan also threatened relations with the Philippines. But that wound healed fairly quickly.

On December 31, 1999, just 5 months after the vans were intercepted in the Manila port, Japan chartered a ship to return them to Japan. 

Earlier that week, the day before Christmas, Japan ambassador to the Philippines Yoshihisa Ara told media that his country committed “to complete the removal of all the waste from the Philippines.”

The Philippine Foreign Secretary then, Domingo Siazon, was quoted by Japanese media as saying the Philippines was “very much satisfied [with] the swift action taken by the Japanese government.” 

Fast forward to 2015. The container vans of trash from Canada were first discovered in June 2013. Two Christmases have come and gone and they are still here. 

Due to port congestion and looming health hazards, 26 of the container vans have been emptied into a private landfill in Capas, Tarlac.

Canada says it can’t touch the garbage because its domestic laws on importation and exportation do not cover household wastes, the primary components of the tons of garbage. 

The western country says the issue is a commercial one and should thus be settled between the Canadian exporter and the Philippine importer.

The Philippines has filed charges against the two importers. Canada has not done the same for the Canadian exporter, Jim Makris, owner of Chronic Incorporated.  

 Environmentalists who tasted the sweet victory of seeing Japan pick up its garbage are now sorely disappointed. 

 Why can’t the same victory be won against Canada? Rappler looks into the key differences and similarities of the two cases:

1. Nature of the garbage

The garbage from Japan caused a much louder uproar because they were clearly hazardous and toxic. It included hospital waste: scalpels, syringes, surgical gloves, used diapers, and intravenous lines streaked with blood.

Thus, it was much clearer that the shipment violated the Basel Convention, an international treaty regulating the transport of harmful garbage. 

Similar to the Canada garbage, the container vans from Japan were misdeclared as containing “recyclable” waste.

 The Philippines has a booming recycling industry. Under the law, “homogenous, sorted” waste for recycling can be shipped to the Philippines.

It’s this loophole, in fact, that garbage smugglers often use to disguise their shipments. 

The trash from Canada is less outrageous. Though it is reported to contain used adult diapers, electronic waste, and syringe plungers, most of it is household waste: disintegrated plastic bags and food containers.

Is this type of garbage still illegal? Yes, because it is mixed waste that can no longer be recycled, says Geri Sañez, chief of the Hazardous Waste Management section of the Environment Management Bureau (EMB). 

Some 65% of the garbage is residual garbage – trash that has no more use and  destined for disposal, added Sañez. He was the government expert who analyzed the contents of the vans.

The composition of the Canada garbage shows that it was intended – not for recycling – but for dumping in the Philippines. Whether or not the garbage is hazardous, that’s still a good reason to be angry, say environmentalists.

Under the Basel Convention, the garbage may not be hazardous, but it falls under “other wastes.” The Canadian shipment also still falls under “illegal traffic,” and is thus a violation of the treaty. 

Consent obtained from the Philippines to receive the trash “through falsification, misrepresentation or fraud…shall be deemed to be illegal traffic,” reads the agreement. 

2. DFA leadership

It’s clear that in 1999, the DFA secretary took the lead. His active campaigning for Japan to re-ship its trash is credited by media reports to have directly led to Japan’s actions. 

Siazon had constant meetings with the Japanese ambassador. Both officials spoke directly with the media instead of delegating spokespersons. 

The DFA facilitated bilateral meetings with support from the DENR and the Bureau of Customs (BOC).

“The Philippine government then acted more decisively on the case. There was less dilly-dallying about what was needed to be done,” says Von Hernandez of Greenpeace. He was one of the environmentalists who campaigned fiercely against Japan's trash. He remains active in the Canada issue. 

Today, an interagency committee was formed to deal with the situation. The committee, composed of the DFA, DENR and BOC, is led, not by the DFA but the DENR.  

The committee is not in the best of shape. Blame games and inconsistent positions seem to bog down its effectiveness.  

One wonders why the DENR was given the leadership role when the issue is primarily a diplomatic one. 

For instance, the DENR was told by the DFA not to bring up the issue at the Basel Convention Conference of Parties in May since it might affect DFA’s ongoing negotiations with the Canadian government. 

The DENR also had to stop its exchanges with its Canadian counterpart, Environment Canada, when the DFA began talks with the Canadian embassy.

The only outcome of these decisions was bad blood between the agencies.

Now, the DENR, the committee’s supposed leader, looks like it is doing nothing.

“We are really badly hit and we are in the bad light,” says a DENR official who requested anonymity.

The agencies also appear to be passing on responsibility among each other. In past press briefings, the DENR would fend off questions about the garbage issue, saying it was already under the DFA's jurisdiction.

In a July 30 press briefing, DFA spokesman Charles Jose dodged certain questions by saying, “The BOC has taken the lead in issuing public statements on the matter.” 

The stances of the agencies are inconsistent.

Three DENR officials, including Secretary Ramon Paje, have said they firmly stand by asking Canada to reship its waste.  

In a previous interview, Paje told Rappler he saw re-shipment as “the only option” since the case could set a troubling precedent for other foreign countries to use the Philippines as a dumping ground. 

DENR has reiterated this position during meetings of the interagency committee, Paje said.

DFA statements have sounded almost as hard-line.

The agency's diplomatic notes asked the Canadian government to assist in the “expeditious removal of these containers to the port of origin at no cost to the Philippine government.”

But DFA letters to the DENR show a softening in position.

Following the request of Canada to have the garbage “processed” in the Philippines, a September 2014 letter from DFA Secretary Albert del Rosario asked Paje to “consider” approving Canada’s request.

The DFA has not responded to Rappler's requests for comments on this issue.

3. Japanese diplomacy

Unlike Canada, Japan did not even mention its domestic laws and never argued that the issue be treated merely as a commercial transaction gone wrong.

Instead, Ara had said his country is “committed to abiding by the Basel Convention.” 

It even sent a “7-man team” to confirm if the waste was hazardous. Canada has sent no such team, depending on the DENR to declare the waste as “neither hazardous nor toxic.”

Japan shouldered all the costs and supervised the return of the garbage. It took on the burden that should’ve been the Japanese exporter’s, because the exporter, Nissho Ltd, was on the run for illegal dumping in Japan. 

Then Japanese trade minister Takashi Fukaya said criminal and administrative charges would be filed against Nissho Ltd.

After the saga, Ara said the Philippine and Japanese governments would create a bilateral working group to “to prevent a recurrence of such an incident and will review the export and import procedures of the two countries under the Basel Convention.”

Canada, meanwhile, says it can’t do the same because its laws don’t compel Canadian exporter Jim Makris to return the household waste. A letter to the DENR from Michael Martin of Environment Canada says Canada cannot even “take possession of the shipment.” 

Canada has not mentioned its obligations under the Basel Convention.

The treaty clearly states that even commercial transactions that lead to violations should be the responsibility of the state with jurisdiction over the private companies involved. 

Last line of defense

Environmentalists are banking on local governments as the last line of defense against garbage being dumped in the Philippines.

The Tarlac provincial government has stopped further dumping of the garbage in a private landfill pending their own investigation of its contents.

Environmentalistshave quoted Bulacan Governor Wilhelmino Sy-Alvarado as saying that he will oppose dumping in his province as well. Bulacan and Tarlac are among the few Luzon provinces with sanitary landfill facilities.

At this point, there’s no telling when the Canada garbage saga will end. 

The only certainty is, though the garbage may end up in a Philippine landfill, the memory of its stench will remain. – Rappler.com

Pia Ranada

Pia Ranada covers the Office of the President and Bangsamoro regional issues for Rappler. While helping out with desk duties, she also watches the environment sector and the local government of Quezon City. For tips or story suggestions, you can reach her at pia.ranada@rappler.com.

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