PH urged to ratify amendment vs hazardous waste trade

Pia Ranada

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The amendment bans rich nations from dumping harmful garbage into developing countries like the Philippines

HAZARDOUS. Electronic waste contains highly toxic chemicals like lead, mercury and cadmium which exposes people to serious health risks

MANILA, Philippines – Will the Philippines become the dumping ground for toxic garbage generated by richer nations?

If the Philippine government does not ratify the Basel Ban Amendment, that just may happen.

From June to August 2013, 50 container vans holding household waste from Canada were exported to the Philippines. The contents were declared as plastic scraps but an inspection by Bureau of Customs (BOC) officials revealed them to be dirty plastics and household garbage, including used adult diapers. 

The container vans are still in the port of Manila and remain unclaimed by the Canadian government. According to Customs staff, they have already started leaking.

The Department of Health identified 18 opened container vans that have to be disinfected as soon as possible, which will cost the Philippine government roughly P20,000.

The Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) has already sent a letter to  Environment Canada, its counterpart agency in Canada. But to date, it has not received a response.

Incidents like this would be less likely to happen if the Philippine government ratified the Basel Ban Amendment, according to advocates at a forum held on Tuesday, March 18, in Quezon City.

The Basel Ban Amendment adds one vital provision in the Basel Convention, which regulates the transfer of hazardous wastes from one country to another. The amendment specifically prohibits developed nations from exporting hazardous wastes to developing nations.

Health hazards

Examples of hazardous wastes are wastes with metals and inorganic chemicals like electronic waste – broken laptops, cellular phones, television sets. Explosives, flammable liquids, toxics, and poisonous substances also belong to this category, as well as  household waste like used plastics, baby diapers and sanitary napkins.

These types of garbage pose great harm to humans and the environment.

Electronic waste contains highly toxic substances like lead, cadmium, and mercury. These chemicals can leak into ground water which eventually reach humans or remain in the environment and ingested by animals which also end up on the dinner table.

When ingested, inhaled or touched by humans, these substances can cause neurological disorders, kidney damage and anemia. Lead has been known to affect young children whose neurological systems have not yet been fully formed. It can lower children’s IQ (intelligence quotient) levels, impair fertility, and cause miscarriages, stillbirths, and death.

Adopted in 1992, the Convention states that a country may only export hazardous wastes if it obtains prior informed consent from the destination country. Only hazardous wastes intended to be recycled or reused in the destination country may be exported. 

To date, 180 countries, including the Philippines, have ratified the Convention. Only two countries – the US and Haiti – have not.

Loopholes in the current system

But critics, composed mainly of developing countries, spotted loopholes and weaknesses in the convention. Prior informed consent may be obtained through unscrupulous means, especially since giving the consent ultimately rests on the shoulders of officials who may be vulnerable to bribes.

Consent is also no guarantee that the wastes will be handled in a way that protects citizens and the environment.

Because the convention limits the exportable wastes to those that will be recycled, countries only have to “reclassify” their waste as meant for recycling, providing a window of opportunity for hazardous waste exporters.

This led to the Basel Ban Amendment in 1995, banning the transfer of harmful wastes from rich to poor nations, regardless of whether the waste will be recycled or not.

NO TO HAZARDS. BAN Toxics Executive Director Richard Gutierrez explains why the Philippines needs to ratify the Basel Ban Amendment. Photo by Pia Ranada/Rappler

Why target developed countries? Because a majority of hazardous waste is generated by developed nations. The biggest generators of hazardous waste are the United States, Japan, South Korea, Australia and Canada.

The amendment ultimately makes these rich nations more accountable for their hazardous wastes. 

“It places the burden on developed countries to police their toxic waste exports. For a poor country like the Philippines, we will not have to rely on our Bureau of Customs trying to police our ports as much and looking for toxic waste exports. US, Japan and Canada should’ve been looking at their ports to begin with and watching for toxic waste imports to the Philippines,” explained BAN Toxics Executive Director Richard Gutierrez.

It will also force rich nations to develop technology to treat their own waste, something Germany has already started doing. 

But to date, only 45 out of 82 party-countries have ratified the amendment. It will enter the force of law only after 17 more countries ratify it. The Philippines is yet to ratify the amendment.

Juan Miguel Cuna, Director of the DENR’s Environment Management Bureau, told Rappler in February that the ratification would come at the end of the year at the soonest.

“We’re still in the process of consulting with the industries, all the stakeholders. Nothing is clear yet. We’d love to [ratify] but we have to see everybody’s position. Whatever we’re standing up for is for the country.”

Rappler texted him, asking for an update, but he did not respond.

Industries to suffer?

Among the loudest voices opposing the amendment is the local battery-making industry. 

The industry is heavily dependent on used lead batteries exported from Japan, South Korea, China, US and Australia which they turn into new car batteries.

The Philippine Association of Battery Manufacturers (PABM) say they produce over 5 million units a year and employ 15,000 people.

But Gutierrez argues that the amendment will not harm the industry since 10 out of the 15 countries exporting the used lead batteries to the Philippines are developing countries and thus not covered by the ban.

The waste we are importing are coming from fellow developing countries which are beyond the scope of the amendment. Those exports will not stop. The industry will not be affected.”

Even if the ban is extended in the future to include other developing countries, data shows the local industry will soon have no need for the exports.

The Philippines is fast becoming a strong generator of e-waste. Soon, the number of used lead batteries generated locally will be enough to supply battery manufacturers. –

Electronic waste image from Shutterstock

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Pia Ranada

Pia Ranada is Rappler’s Community Lead, in charge of linking our journalism with communities for impact.