Take your trash somewhere else

Take your trash somewhere else

Malaysia made a clear statement last week that it is ready to take aggressive moves against countries that dump plastic waste in the country, which this year became the world's main destination for the substances.

Yeo Bee Yin, the minister of energy, technology, science, environment and climate change, said up to 3,000 tonnes of non-recyclable plastic would be sent back to where it came from. The waste, she said, had been "imported illegally" from many countries including the US, Japan, France, Canada, Australia and the UK.

Ever since China banned plastic waste imports last year, other countries including Malaysia have filled the gap. According to Greenpeace, plastic waste imports to Malaysia tripled to 215,000 tonnes between January and July 2018, compared with the same period the year before. The country isn't equipped to handle the influx, it said.

Mrs Yeo last week delivered a blunt warning: "If you ship to Malaysia, we will return it back without mercy," she said. Those responsible for bringing in the waste will have two weeks to ship it back. If they fail, they will be brought to court.

Malaysia isn't alone. On Friday the Philippines shipped 69 tonnes of waste back to Canada. Exported from Canada between 2013 and 2014, it was part of a commercial transaction made without government consent. The containers were falsely declared as recyclable plastic scraps but several contained household trash.

Under increasing pressure from President Rodrigo Duterte, Canada agreed to take the waste back and was in the process of hiring a contractor. But when it missed a May 15 deadline, Mr Duterte recalled the Philippine ambassador to Ottawa and began making arrangements to ship the waste out.

I'm not opposed to the aggressive stand taken by Malaysia and the Philippines. But developing countries themselves must do more to strictly enforce basic laws to limit the amount of garbage their own citizens produce and step up waste management. They need to raise public awareness about minimising waste, especially among households, to keep their homes and communities clean.

In Vietnam, where tourism has begun to threaten the environment of destinations including the treasured islands of Phu Quoc, a creative campaign has been launched to reduce the amount of trash being thrown into the street. Aimed especially at youngsters in the world's fourth largest contributor to marine plastic pollution, Happiness Saigon and PepsiCo began installing special bins in Ho Chi Minh City on Global Recycling Day on March 18.

Each bin featured a question about a hot topic: "Is it acceptable to use English words when talking in Vietnamese?" "Do you feel judged because of your tattoos?" "Is society putting too much pressure on you?" "Is it okay to hug in public?" To "vote", you had to put your trash into a "Yes" or "No" compartment, thus making a statement while keeping the city clean. As of May 24, the "Raise Your Voice" project had collected 2,500 kilogrammes of trash.

With plastic waste becoming a huge concern globally, Thailand -- another top-five offender -- is looking to do its part. Central Retail Corp has declared its goal to become the country's first plastic bag-free retailer by the end of this year by encouraging customers to decline plastic bags and instead bring their own bags to earn shopping points. The campaign will run from June 5, with an aim to eliminate 150 million plastic bags by year-end.

A highly successful effort can be seen in South Korea, where the government banned sending food to landfills in 2005 and, in 2013, prohibited the dumping of "garbage juice" (liquid squeezed from food waste) into the sea. Today, a staggering 95% of food waste is recycled -- a remarkable leap from only 2% in 1995. Seoul has cut the amount of food waste produced by 400 tonnes per day.

Since 2013, South Koreans have been required by law to discard food waste in biodegradable bags, which cost the average four-person family about US$6 a month. By purchasing them from local stores, residents are effectively paying a tax on their food waste upfront. Government data shows that this tax pays for roughly 60% of the cost of collecting and processing the city's food waste.

Ultimately, the solution for both developed and developing countries is to stop creating all this waste. At the very least, people in developed countries need to do a better job of recycling. And before we accuse others, we in developing countries must make sure we do our best to keep our home clean and tidy.

Nareerat Wiriyapong

Acting Asia Focus Editor

Acting Asia Focus Editor

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