Local water sources contaminated by toxic chemicals from some sub-standard recycling plants. Credit: EARTH/ Karnt Thassanaphak

Anti-hazardous waste campaigners call for an end to hazardous waste exports and “dirty recycling” worldwide

In recognition of World Environment Day, global anti-hazardous waste campaigners from EARTH and Czech based Arnika have called for an end to global hazardous waste exports and  recycling industries which they brand as “dirty” through the “universal” ratification of the Basel Ban Amendment

EARTH and Arnika, both are members of IPEN (International Pollutants Elimination Network), a global network of non-profit organizations improving chemical policies and raising public awareness against production and use and disposal of hazardous substances that harm human health and the environment, said as the world enters the UN decade of ecosystem restoration, pollution from dirty recycling continues to devastate local environments and health worldwide. Without universal ratification of the Basel Ban Amendment, this problem will continue, they pointed.

The Basel Ban Amendment is an amendment to the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movement of Hazardous Waste, which was introduced in 1989 as an international treaty aiming to control trans-boundary movements of hazardous waste and its disposal.

While the Convention requires the prior informed consent of importing countries before the export of hazardous waste, the Ban Amendment takes it a step further by prohibiting exports of hazardous waste. Introduced in 1995 and came into legal force in 2019, not all countries have ratified the Ban Amendment, the organisations said.

“This means the trading of hazardous waste can still occur between two parties that have yet to ratify it,” the organisations pointed.

Earth and Arnika exemplified based on real data from the Customs Department that after China’s 2018 waste import ban came into effect in January that year, the amount of plastic scrap and e-waste exported to Thailand increased, from 152,737 tons recorded in 2017 to 552,721 tons.

EARTH also found out that the number of new plastic industries that received permits increased to 289, larger than any in the past seven years (usually between 132 and 195 units per year). Recycling processes especially those related to plastic, the organisations pointed, have been identified as sources of dangerous pollutants.

Following the incident, civil organizations mobilized and called for prohibitions and regulation of imports of plastic scrap and e-waste. The plan to phase out imports of general plastic scrap was at first set in the next two years. In March this year, however, the Ministry of Natural Resources and the Environment and the Department of Industrial Works resolved to allow imports of plastic scrap for another six years.

And for e-waste, it was not until August in the same year that the Thai government issued a resolution to ban imports of e-waste listed under the Convention.

The ban on e-waste came into effect on September 15, 2020, prohibiting 428 types of e-waste. However, this ban leaves out some types of e-waste , including parts of machinery and electrical components (custom code 8548). They are still found being imported, although the trend is in decline.

EARTH has also found that the ban contains legal loopholes that allow many more types of e-waste to be imported. Although they are listed under the Convention, they are not included under the ban, such as those categorised as “used products” that may include e-wastes, such as used keyboards, personal computers, and laptops.

“Between the incomplete e-waste ban and the reluctance to phase out plastic scrap imports, recycling factories in Thailand continue to grow,” the organisations pointed.

 Akarapon Teebthaisong, Research and Technical Officer from EARTH, which has observed many recycling plants that burn and process metals without precautionary measures and emit airborne contaminants and pollutants including heavy metals, said recycling industries have had a devastating impact on the environment and livelihoods in Thailand.

On one hand, they have pushed out smaller waste processors and trash collectors, causing financial difficulties for many of them. On the other hand, the improper waste processing methods have caused pollution of the local environment, he said.

Communities’ call

Thamonwan Wannapirun, a leader of the Tha Than-Ban Song group, which has been advocating closure of transnational recycling factories in her community, said the presence and operations of these factories led to severe contamination of the local waterway and groundwater wells as well as constant air and noise pollution

“We would like countries around the world to stop exporting their waste to countries with weaker legislation and poorer enforcement standards. Right now, Thailand has become a garbage dumping ground, and local communities like us are suffering from the consequences,” she said.

Thamonwan said countries around the world should ratify the Basel Ban Amendment, as this will help close the loopholes and end policies that allowed the continuation of e-waste and plastic scrap imports.

“We would like the leaders of nations and industries to think of the masses of people living with the consequences of their actions. Every human deserves clean air, clean water, a clean environment, and a healthy livelihood. Please think of this and join the amendment. This will help the global effort to protect and improve the environment,” said Ms Thamonwan.

Arnika campaigner, Miroslava Jopkova, said when international waste trading and dirty recycling are not properly controlled they have an impact on communities. The organisation urges the Thai government to ratify the Basel Ban Amendment.

“This failure to act is unfortunately common in other countries in ASEAN and around the world. Without the active commitment of states, international laws such as the Basel Convention have no impact on the global effort to protect the environment.

“As World Environment Day marks the global community’s entrance into a new decade of ecosystem restoration, we unequivocally call for an end to exports of hazardous wastes and dirty recycling industries through universal ratification of the Basel Ban Amendment,” Ms Jopkova said.