Time to ratify Basel ban on toxic waste
Last month, the Pollution Control Department (PCD) held an important public hearing that might end the problem of the import of hazardous waste to Thailand.
The in-person hearing attended by various stakeholders was held on Sept 13, and online hearings for the public lasted until the end of last month.
The hearing is the part of process in which the PCD under the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment bids to ratify a "Basel Ban Amendment".
The amendment is an updated version of Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal that Thailand signed two decades ago.
The convention was intended to provide an insight into the transport of hazardous waste, to prevent illegal dumping in developing nations and protect the environment.
While the initial Basel Convention introduced a permit system for waste traders, the coming amendment contains more drastic measures. Those who ratify it can no longer import unprocessed waste. Of the 188 original signatories, 100 have so far ratified the amendment.
Thailand is among those to hold off, despite a decade of clamourous support of the new provisions from civic groups and communities.
The government has been reluctant because the private sector and some government agencies fear the new rules will affect their thriving recycling factories that rely on the import of foreign scrap materials to boost their margins beyond what is achievable from only taking in local refuse.
These shipments include plastics and other potentially dangerous substances, mostly from rich countries such as Japan and Europe.
Another problem is posed by electronic and chemical waste mixed in with the shipments.
Much of this particularly toxic type of waste finds its way to Thai facilities, many in the Central region and Eastern Seaboard. Waste from these recycling plants can contaminate local freshwater areas and cause health problems in surrounding communities.
In Ta Than sub-district in Chachoengsao province, residents claim that a local electronics recycling company has been causing groundwater pollution that has seeped into local farms.
This community has become part of a network campaigning for the country to ratify the Basel Ban Amendment.
Isn't it about time the government responds to these problems by making a change to public policy?
Thailand has never had a good record regarding waste management; however the problem worsened considerably after 2017, when China announced its own ban on the import of 24 different types of waste.
Previously, China had been a notorious dumping ground for the West, so after it closed its gates, it's no surprise that many of these shipments instead changed course and ended up at the ports of countries in Southeast Asia with weaker laws and insufficient oversight.
Thailand soon became a major dumping ground for old electronics.
These arrangements have become a lucrative business for local recycling factories with investors encouraged to support their expansion thanks to conducive government policies.
Previously, saleng, or rubbish scavengers, could make a living this way, but the factories have decimated this last-chance saloon career path as the factories have little need to purchase their modest hauls.
Research conducted by our group -- Ecological Alert and Recovery (Earth)-- shows local importers have brought in waste that might be harmful to the environment.
According to the data, during the first half of this year, Thailand imported 360,648 tonnes of products under HS Code 2621 -- which includes residues and ash from the incineration of municipal waste -- from Japan.
Fly ash is considered a hazardous substance under Thai law as it might contain heavy metal.
In addition, Thailand has been importing other types of slag from iron and steel manufacturers in Japan and Korea as well as metals from Australia and the United States. These rich exporting nations have also not yet ratified the Basel Amendment.
Insufficient oversight has been the chief reason much of this waste has been able to cross the border, with customs checkpoints lacking the resources to test every shipment that arrives.
False declarations are also common which, coupled with legal uncertainty, have embedded this dangerous culture of waste importation.
Yet the hearing last month attended by our representatives was a promising sign, even if just for the fact that an invitation was issued.
Poonsak Chanchampee, director of Waste Management Siam (WMS) and a representative of the private sector, said private industries have been preparing for the ratification of the amendment.
According to Mr Poonsak, this issue has been under discussion for a decade, and importers are finally showing a willingness to change.
The question is: What will be the next step? The PCD is to conclude its report which will be forwarded to National Environmental Board (NEB) for approval.
Then, the cabinet followed by parliament will have to approve it.
This process will take about one year, according to the PCD.
Nevertheless, we cannot afford to be overly optimistic. Despite words of encouragement from the private sector, civil society groups campaigning for the ban of all imported garbage have witnessed the power of lobbying many times over.
A recent example of one such about-turn is the pushing back of the ban of import of plastic waste for recycling from 2020 to 2026 to give industries five more years of profit.
It is hoped the PCD will be decisive and ratify this international law sooner rather than later.
The government has dragged its feet for more than a decade and the country as well as communities and the environment cannot afford to wait for such a lag.
Thailand has been allowed to become a new global dumping ground and without public policy to counter it, the situation will only get worse.
Ratifying the amendment will be a first big step to a more systematic approach to waste management and recycling in the country.
Ratification of the amendment could lay the groundwork for the government to realise its oft-repeated dream of an effective circular economy that underpins a sustainable future.
Penchom Saetang is director of Ecological Alert and Recovery (Earth), a civic group monitoring industrial waste in Thailand. Punyathorn Jeungsmarn is a researcher at Earth.