EARTH Thailand

Unity needed to fight 'waste colonialism'

Bangkok Post 29 June 2022 | Punyathorn Jeungsmarn

In many areas countrywide, imported waste releases dangerous toxic chemicals, including Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) or "forever chemicals" -- so called because of their ability to remain in an environment and organisms for a long time.

Such toxic waste has disproportionately impacted marginalised communities, often those living in agricultural zones. The injustice is compounded by the fact that much of the imported waste comes from economically developed nations.

Thailand is only one of many developing countries -- from Africa, Latin America and Asia -- affected by streams of waste from the first world. This situation has been dubbed "Waste Colonialism" -- known as destinations for the West's unwanted waste.

Because this is an international problem, it requires an international solution. Developed nations must comply by international law to manage their own waste, and respect other's environmental sovereignty.

Early this month, there was a window of opportunity to try and rein in waste colonialism. A meeting in Geneva -- the Conference of the Parties to the Basel, Rotterdam and Stockholm Conventions (BRS COPs) -- was organised to find a timely solution.

Held from June 6-17 this year, the BRS COPs covered three international conventions, each of which addresses a form of transnational pollution caused by waste. Basel addresses the transboundary movement of hazardous waste; Rotterdam covers the importing of hazardous chemicals; and Stockholm deals with POPs chemicals.

Thailand is a party to all three conventions, and for good reason. For a long time, the kingdom has been impacted by pollutants from imported waste. This problem intensified in 2017, after China announced a ban on waste imports, causing exporters such as the United States, Japan and Australia to redirect their waste to Southeast Asia -- Thailand included.

Since then, the country has seen a significant growth of recycling industries. While this sector is a major part of the country's policy shift towards the Bio-Circular-Green (BCG) economic model, it has been plagued by irresponsible operators and weak regulations.

For instance, in Tha Than subdistrict of Phanom Sarakham district in Chachoengsao, an agricultural community was severely affected by an electronic waste (e-waste) recycling company funded by Chinese operators. The factory opened after China announced it was banning imported waste.

Recycling companies such as the one in Tha Than carelessly place scraps of e-waste in open areas, openly sorting, dismantling and burning them. This process releases significant levels of POPs into the environment.

Two NGOs from the Czech Republic -- Ecological Alert and Recovery-Thailand (EARTH) and the Arnika Association -- cooperated to investigate soil contamination near another recycling factory in Phanom Sarakham.

The result was disturbing. High levels of dioxin, a class of POPs, were found. The level of chlorinated dioxins found was 20 times higher than the background level in Thailand's soil. Other types of dioxins, including brominated dioxins and brominated flame retardants were also found.

The problem also extends elsewhere in Thailand. In northeastern Kalasin, a large e-waste dump is a source of serious health concern for locals. Alarmingly, an interview with local residents revealed that some of the e-waste had been auctioned from the Laem Chabang international port.

In 2019, after a large quantity of e-waste and plastic waste was imported into Thailand, the government banned imports of more than 400 types of e-waste. However, EARTH's investigation found that the ban has loopholes, where some categories of e-waste could still be imported, for instance those classified under the custom code HS8548.

Further research through the Ministry of Commerce's database found that 11.83 million kilogrammes of e-waste under that same category had already been imported into Thailand in the first three months of this year alone. The top exporters were the usual suspects of economically developed nations: the United States, Australia, Japan and China.

This is why the BRS COPs in June was imperative and possibly a game-changer. Countries facing similar problems of toxic waste imports, especially Africa, used the meeting as an opportunity to push for international solutions to their own waste crises.

Early in the meeting, Ghana, along with Switzerland, officially proposed for all e-waste to be controlled under the Basel Convention.

Previously, only e-waste defined as "hazardous" was controlled under this convention. This led to loopholes, caused by a myriad factors: poor custom controls, illicit imports and high levels of contamination allowed for waste to be considered "non-hazardous" when it clearly was.

The Swiss-Ghana proposal wanted all e-waste, whether hazardous or not, to be controlled or banned for import by the convention. This would mean all e-waste imports must receive informed consent by the receiving state before they can be exported. This would close all of the aforementioned loopholes.

To the delight of environmentalists, the proposal was accepted by the parties to the Basel conventions, and will soon come into effect in Basel party-states -- Thailand included. This was a real victory for waste import control, and it was a result of international efforts and the solidarity of developing nations.

The same cannot be said for another proposal made by 53 African nations to lower the limits for POPs in waste, which made no progress this year.

Currently, the limits for POPs in imported waste under the Basel Convention are very high. This means waste contaminated with a high level of toxic POPs such as dioxins is flowing into developing nations unimpeded.

As highly contaminated waste may still fall below the current limits, it is also not required to be sent for environmentally sound disposal. This is how POPs-contaminated waste ends up in places like Tha Than and Khok Sa-ad.

The 53 African nations fought alongside civic organisations to lower the limits of POPs in waste.

For two weeks, this issue was debated. While some powerful nations support lowering the limits, others do not. China blocked the lowering of POPs limits by saying it needed more time to evaluate the social and economic impact of such decisions.

It is concerning that China, one of the top exporters of HS8548 e-waste to Thailand, is so indecisive on the issue.

As the debates hit a stalemate towards the end of the meeting, no decision was made. All proposals were left on the table to be discussed later or at the next BRS COPs meeting.

While the success of the Swiss-Ghana proposal is encouraging, more international efforts are needed to push for lower limits of POPs in waste.

Next year's BRS COPs will likely see an international front pushing for lower limits of POPs in waste once more.

It is time for Thailand to join that bloc. Next year, Thai delegates should fully support the call for lower the level of POPs, so that waste colonialism can be brought to an end.


Punyathorn Jeungsmarn is a campaigner with Ecological Alert and Recovery -- Thailand (EARTH).


Read more: Bangkok Post 29 June 2022