A Cambodian boy (L) tries to pick out a can alongside in a canal filled with waste in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.   Photo: AFP/Tang Chhin Sothy
A canal filled with waste in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Photo: AFP / Tang Chhin Sothy

About a 30-minute drive from the center of Phnom Penh, not far from the tourist-crammed Khmer Rouge-era ‘Killing Fields’, lies the Choeung Ek dumpsite.

It is home to scores, if not hundreds, of families who work to scavenge anything precious they can find and sell. In 2015, it was reported that 2,000 tons of waste arrived here every day, making it Cambodia’s largest dump.

Cambodia and wider Southeast Asia may soon receive a lot more rubbish after China’s move this month to stop importing 24 categories of solid waste, much of which was recycled for raw materials.

The ban, imposed for health and environmental reasons, came into effect on January 1.

With China now seemingly out of the waste import business, some believe that Southeast Asia could fill the gap. PCI Wood Mackenzie, a United Kingdom-based consultancy, wrote in a recent report that Southeast Asia could soon become a “world leader” for plastic waste recycling due to China’s ban.

Critical questions are already being asked, however, about whether such commercial assessments are overly optimistic and indeed if developing a comparative advantage in importing other countries’ waste is desirable at all.

A man collects recyclables from an alley as smoke billows from the chimney of a factory in Gaoyi county, China, December 7, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Thomas Peter

Even without traveling to Cambodia’s Choeung Ek dumpsite, it is difficult to miss the scale of the country’s waste problem. In 2016, the Ministry of Environment said that 10 million plastic bags are used each day in Phnom Penh alone, more than used in most European cities.

The government has increased solid waste collection, up 43% last year compared to 2012, but industry experts say the country still lacks sufficient recycling services, especially for plastics.

Meanwhile, Phnom Penh’s private waste collection company, Cintri, is routinely at odds with City Hall, mainly over how little it receives to perform such a daunting task.

Cambodia is not alone. Most Southeast Asian nations struggle to handle, let alone recycle, the waste they create domestically. Importing more from overseas would likely only make matters worse, critics say.

Last month, Bali declared a “garbage emergency” due to the amount of garbage washing up on its tourist-lined shores. A few months earlier, Malaysia’s Solid Waste Management and Public Cleansing Corporation stated that only 17% of Malaysians recycle, despite years of government-sponsored promotion campaigns.

China imported 8 million tons of plastic waste in 2016, according to the Bureau of International Recycling. This amounted to as much as 70% of the world’s unwanted plastics, a large proportion of which arrived from Southeast Asia.

The United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) claims Indonesia produces 1.29 million tons of plastic waste each year. China is the world’s leader, UN statistics show.

Plastic garbage floating in a Jakarta waterway. Photo: iStock/Getty Images

Ocean Conservancy, a US-based environmental group, reported in 2016 that China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam contribute as much as 60% of all the plastic that enters the world’s oceans. In these countries, only 40% of garbage is properly collected and sent to landfills, the same advocacy group said.

Nearly 200 nations signed a United Nations resolution in December to eliminate plastic pollution in the sea, a move that could pave the way to a binding global treaty. The UNEP predicts at current rates there will be more plastic than fish in the ocean by 2050.

Electronic waste, or e-waste, including discarded mobile phones, batteries and computers, is also on the rise across Southeast Asia. The volume of such waste grew by 90% in Vietnam and 70% in Cambodia between 2010 and 2015 – only China saw a higher growth rate at 107% over the same period.

While some of the 17,000 tons of e-waste Cambodia produced in 2015 was salvaged by repair ships, the majority was either dangerously burned or discarded in dumpsites.

Another problem is that Southeast Asia’s waste recycling capabilities are still primitive compared to China’s, especially for the more profitable e-waste management.

Piles of electronic waste. Photo: Reuters/Guadalupe Pardo

The Vietnam Association for Conservation of Nature and Environment told local media last year that the country’s 15 industrial workshops licensed to treat e-waste combined only handle between 0.5 and 3 tons per day, well under the amount produced.

Moreover, many of these workshops would simply dissemble and split the metals before sending them to China for more complex “refining.”

There are also legal issues. Most countries lack legislation about waste recycling, especially for e-waste, while some have banned the import of hazardous waste due to environmental concerns.

In 2016, Laos restricted the import of e-waste after reports of related water pollution. The government also suspended operations at Vientiane’s Hokeng Metal Processing Company because, the government said, it failed to install proper pollution controls. The government also banned concessions on new e-waste plants.

The Lao government, like many others in Southeast Asia, is struggling to balance profitable yet environmentally-damaging industries amid greater popular demands to protect the environment.

Concerns about environmental damage have led to unprecedented protests and social unrest across the region in recent years, seen most vividly in the popular protests against the Formosa Steel toxic spill that resulted in massive fish deaths along its central coast.

Vietnamese protesters against a toxic spill that caused massive fish deaths along the country’s central coast. Photo: AFP/Hoang Dinh Nam

Still, some suspect that China’s ban on plastic waste will merely motivate Chinese firms to move and continue their operations in nearby Southeast Asia. Reuters reported this month that Chinese companies have recently started to set up new recycling plants in Malaysia, for instance.

Analysts say Chinese waste processors will be opened or relocated in the region’s less-developed nations, which, while grateful for the economic benefit, do not presently have the same standard of facilities as in China.

Nor will they likely be able to quickly develop the capacity to safely and adequately handle the byproducts of recycling, the analysts say.

This has already led to critical claims that China, aiming to protect its own environment and public health, is now exporting its billion-dollar recycling industry to Southeast Asia, where regulations are often lax and corruption rife.

A corollary suggestion is that Chinese-owned firms will profit the most from the establishment of new workshops in Southeast Asia, leaving local populations to eventually pay for costly clean-up operations.

That will pose a quandary for Southeast Asian nations desperate for foreign investment, but wary of increasingly environmentally conscious citizenships. The answer likely lies in sorting out their own messes before importing those of others.

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