Credit: EARTH/ Karnt Thassanaphak

It’s time for Thailand to ratify the Basel Ban Amendment

Ratification of the Basel Ban Amendment will not solve all related hazardous waste management issues and environmental hazards at once, but it is a crucial step towards a sustainable solution for Thailand’s ongoing waste imports crisis, writes Punyathorn Jeungsmarn of the Ecological Alert and Recovery Thailand (EARTH)

Last Monday, the Pollution Control Department (PCD) under the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment (MNRE) held a public hearing discussing the possibility of ratifying the “Ban Amendment” to the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal.

The Ban Amendment prohibits the export of hazardous waste from wealthier to poorer nations. As a developing nation increasingly plagued by the crisis of hazardous waste imports, Thailand needs to ratify the Ban Amendment or face further environmental destruction.

From heavy metal in the groundwater to the dangerous effects of Dioxins and other Persistent Organic Pollutants in the air, many pollution problems in the country have been linked to poor waste management, improper “dirty” recycling factories, incinerations, and covert dumping.

While the environmental impacts of waste have been around for a long time, the problem of imported foreign wastes has only recently intensified. In 2017, China announced a ban on the import of 24 different types of wastes. This resulted in much of those wastes being diverted to Southeast Asia, with Thailand being one of the foremost destinations.

“The number of waste management and recycling plants in Thailand has skyrocketed in the past three to four years, especially after China’s ban. These industries concentrate in the Central and Eastern provinces of Thailand, making them especially vulnerable to air and water pollution,” said Director of Ecological Alert and Recovery Thailand (EARTH) Penchom Saetang at the hearing meeting. Her organization campaigns for good practices of hazardous waste management.

Pollution from hazardous wastes first became an epidemic in poor and developing nations in the 1980s. The Basel Convention, which came into effect in 1992, was meant to be a global response to that crisis.

While being a step forward in global environmentalism, the convention was widely criticized for not totally imposing a ban on hazardous waste trade and movement. Instead, it allowed these activities to continue and required only “a prior informed consent” of the destination country.

In 1995, a proposed Ban Amendment was adopted following campaigns by developing nations. It prohibited countries belonging to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and European Commission (EC), plus Lichtenstein from exporting hazardous wastes to other nations.

After there were enough parties that had signed the Amendment in 2019, it became part of the convention. However, the added article only applies to countries that have ratified the Amendment. Of the 188 parties to the Basel Convention, 100 countries have ratified it.

Among the non-ratifying nations are developed countries such as Japan, Australia and South Korea. Likewise, many developing nations, such as Thailand, have not ratified the Ban Amendment either. This means hazardous waste trade could still proceed between these nations.

The hazardous waste trade, therefore, remains lucrative in Thailand. EARTH’s research on the Customs Department’s database shows that between January 2021 to July 2021, Thailand imported 360,648 tons of products under HS Code 2621, which includes residues and ash from the incineration of municipal waste from Japan.

In addition, Thailand has been importing other types of slags and wastes from the manufacturing of iron and steel from non-ratifiers of the Amendment, among which are Japan and Korea. Scraps and wastes of metals are also imported, chiefly from Australia and the United States, the latter of which did not even ratify the Basel Convention in the first place.

Some of these wastes have been and are still imported in a large volume and are loosely inspected at custom checkpoints. Many of the importing companies import different types of wastes from many custom codes. Some are fronts that sell the imported wastes to many other factories. Some have no registration numbers or permits to operate factories using the products they imported.

These complexities and legal uncertainties embedded in Thailand hazardous waste import system make the implementation of the Basel Convention difficult.

For example, to decide if waste is considered “hazardous” following the definition under the convention, its chemical composition or hazard characteristics must be proved. But the large quantity of wastes and poor custom inspection makes this difficult.

“We can’t be certain of the chemical compositions of much of these imported wastes, so they cannot be regulated in accordance with the Convention. But what we can be certain of is the damage they have on Thailand’s environment,” said Ms. Penchom.

Credit: EARTH

In Nong Chumpol sub-district in Phetchaburi province, covert dumping of wastes led to extensive damage to farmlands. Surface and groundwater have also been severely contaminated.

In Ta Than sub-district in Chachoengsao province, an electronic wastes recycling company has been causing serious pollution of groundwater in a local farming community. The affected communities called for better implementation of factory regulation laws and for Thailand to ratify the Ban Amendment. Both communities continue to oppose the establishment and operation of dirty recycling and waste management factories.

Arguments against the amendment often ignore health effects of the hazardous waste trade. Concerns for economic opportunities replace rights-based thinking. One counter-argument, as presented in the meeting, was that ratification of the amendment would deprive recycling companies of imported materials, thus damaging the Circular Economy policy that the government is advocating.

“Ratifying the Ban Amendment may be a starting point to a more systematic and extensive waste management and recycling system in the country,” argued Penchom. “Ratification of the amendment could lay the groundwork for the national development of an effective Circular Economy.”

Dr. Poonsak Chanchampee, director of Waste Management Siam (WMS) and a representative of the private sector at the meeting, said private industries have been preparing for the ratification of the amendment. According to Dr. Poonsak, Thailand’s possibility of ratifying the amendment has been discussed by the private sector for a decade.

The PCD is also gathering public opinions on the matter. Public members can submit their views through the PCD website until the end of this month. These will later be submitted alongside the results of the latest meeting to the National Basel Convention sub-committee.

While the relative consensus between CSOs, private sector, and relevant government agencies in the Monday meeting is an encouraging sign, advocates of the ratification remain cautious as industrial lobbying exerted surprising influence on decisions of government agencies before. In fact, the failure of concerned government agencies’ regulation, such as that by the Department of Industrial Works (DIW), remain a significant cause for the proliferation of “dirty” recycling, waste pollution and industrial pollution.

Ratification of the Ban Amendment will not solve all these issues at once, but it is a crucial step towards a sustainable solution for Thailand’s ongoing waste imports crisis.