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Global Voices: Dumping garbage abroad is Canada’s dirty secret

Something’s rotten in the port of Manila — and the stench is 100 per cent “Made in Canada.” Last June, 50 school bus-sized shipping containers arrived at the docks of the Philippines’ capital city.

Something’s rotten in the port of Manila — and the stench is 100 per cent “Made in Canada.”

Last June, 50 school bus-sized shipping containers arrived at the docks of the Philippines’ capital city. They were marked as plastic from Canada, destined for recycling in the Philippines. The containers sat unclaimed for eight months until they began to emit a stench impossible to ignore.

In February, Philippine media reported how port officials cracked the giant crates open to find tonnes of plastic mixed with garbage — including dirty diapers. More than 20,000 Filipinos have added their names to a petition calling on Canada to take back our trash.

How would you feel if your neighbour dumped his garbage in your yard?

Every week, Canadians dutifully set recycling bins at the curb, piled high with empty yogurt tubs and plastic water bottles. Increasingly, we take our obsolete cellphones and broken TVs to depots rather than trashing them. Canada has a strong recycling system that sees most of our used plastics and old electronics reclaimed.

But it’s not perfect. International environmental groups say tonnes of our recyclables are shipped overseas, causing environmental and health problems in developing nations such as China, India and the Philippines. And the Harper government opposes stronger international laws to ban rich countries from dumping their trash on the world’s poor.

When the truck collects your blue box, the materials go to a facility to be sorted. Once the plastic is separated from metal and glass, it is sold on the open market. According to the Canadian Plastics Industry Association, 83 per cent is purchased for processing in North America by privately owned recycling facilities. But 14 per cent — 39,900 metric tonnes in 2012, equal to 2,400 school buses — is purchased by businesses that resell it overseas.

Environmental groups such as the Seattle-based Basel Action Network tell us that in developing countries, the plastics are often burned, not recycled. Paeng Lopez, of the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives in the Philippines, told us in his country the plastics and other waste are purchased by cement factories to burn for heat and power.

The Electronic Products Recycling Association has established systems in eight provinces (Alberta has its own system and New Brunswick has not joined yet) for collecting and safely processing e-waste here in Canada. The EPRA estimates the businesses participating in its system are recycling 100,000 metric tonnes of e-waste every year.

It’s impossible to count the many more tonnes that are not caught by EPRA systems, and find their way overseas, said Jim Puckett of the Basel Action Network. He has tracked hundreds of shipping containers of Canadian e-waste in the past six years to Hong Kong, from where it is illegally funnelled into mainland China.

In developing countries, e-waste is usually brought to massive facilities where it is processed by impoverished labourers who have little protection against the toxins they are exposed to, according to BAN and India’s Toxic Links organization. The electronics are burned to melt away plastic casings and get at the valuable metals — copper and gold — inside. Workers — including children and pregnant women — spend their work days in clouds of poisonous smoke. Other hazardous materials, such as lead from the glass in old TVs and computer monitors, coat workers’ hands and seeps into groundwater.

The 1992 Basel Convention was designed to control the export of toxic materials from rich nations to developing ones. Exporting nations must get permission from the recipient country to ship hazardous waste. But even when countries refuse to take waste, Puckett told us shipments slip through because of shoddy enforcement by Environment Canada, and corruption among customs officials in the recipient countries.

In 1995, European countries proposed an amendment to the Basel Convention to ban rich nations from dumping any toxic waste on less developed countries. Canada is one of four nations blocking the amendment. An Environment Canada spokesperson told us the government opposes the amendment because: “It would impact the trade of materials destined for recycling facilities operating in an environmentally sound manner if they were found in a developing country.”

But once recyclables leave our shores, we have no control over whether they are recycled at a proper facility, or burned.

We have built a good recycling system in Canada, but we can make it better. Our governments at all levels must invest in measures such as business grants to encourage the growth of profitable recycling businesses here. As consumers, we can take our old electronics to EPRA-accredited depots for recycling. And our country must end its opposition to the Basel Convention amendment to ban all dumping of hazardous waste on developing countries.

Back in Manila, Filipinos are still waiting to hear when we’ll get our garbage out of their back yard.

Craig and Marc Kielburger are co-founders of international charity and educational partner, Free The Children. Its youth empowerment event, We Day, is in 11 cities across North America this year, inspiring more than 160,000 attendees from over 4,000 schools. For more information, visit