By Rajan Philips –
The discovery of garbage containers from the United Kingdom and left in the lurch at the Colombo Port and the Free Trade Zone has triggered the usual national response. There was mock panic in Parliament. The rush to Court, as courts have become not just the last resort, but increasingly the first resort, if not the only resort. And the editorial hectoring that garbage is the new frontier of neo-colonialism. Unquestionably, global waste trade is a substantial international operation. Toxic colonialism is the trendy jargon in the literature on global waste. India, Pakistan and Bangladesh are among the world’s top twenty dumpsters. Sri Lanka is only a minor cog in the global garbage wheel, and the imported and apparently abandoned garbage looks like a free trade cockup and not any neocolonial conspiracy.
The question is how will the government, agencies and the private companies implicated in this transaction will act to contain the environmental exposure of the opened and unopened containers, and how and when will they dispatch them to their intended destinations? The government and its agencies have their work cut out for plugging the loopholes that led to this mess, or forever end Sri Lanka being a transfer station (euphemistically called entrepot) in the global waste trade if it is not serious about developing the industrial knowhow for dealing with waste. The British government has reportedly indicated its readiness to assist in dealing with the environmental fallouts and to even take back the containers. Thankfully, the courts are there to give the public some confidence that whoever is in government, now or after elections, will be forced to address these matters through proper regulations to serve the public interest and protect the environment.
It would seem that the whole operation had been started under some fanciful packaging of garbage, such as opening Colombo to “entrepot trade” (as if just free trade is not enough), and turning it into a “commercial hub.” It is fair to ask if anything other than foreign garbage has benefited from this entrepot and hub transactions, and what benefit, if any, has accrued to Sri Lanka’s economy, technology and society as a result of these fancy trading hubs? Sure, there would have been profits to the private parties to these transactions, but at what social and environmental cost?
Government submissions before the Court of Appeal, indicated that there are around 1,000 unclaimed garbage containers in the Port yards. That is more than four times the 241 British containers whose discovery started the latest garbage saga. According to Finance Minister Mangala Samaraweera’s statement in parliament, “a total of 2,964,850 kilograms of garbage had been imported to Sri Lanka while only 283,405 kilograms had been re-exported.” The Ministers kilograms do not match the government lawyer’s container count presented in Court. We do not know what period of time they are talking about. Or, how many more containers have come and gone ever since the entrepot operations began? And what residual waste from them is left behind not only in Colombo but other hub locations as well?
Another Rajapaksa Legacy?
Garbage was elevated as a portfolio for foreign investors under the Board of Investment (BOI) during the Rajapaksa Regime. As has been the case in so many instances, the beleaguered and bifurcated Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government is left holding the bag; in this instance, leaky garbage containers. The entry of foreign garbage to the island was enabled in 2013, through amendments to financial and monetary laws and the new Commercial Hub Regulations. The Regulations differentiated between foreign investors and local traders in entrepot trade, and created “Free Ports or Bonded Areas” at six locations in the country, two at ports (Colombo and Hambantota) and four at airports/export processing zones (Katunayake, Mattala, Koggala EPZ and Mirrijjawala EPZ). These areas are legally considered to be outside the purview of customs and under the oversight of the BOI, purportedly to facilitate trade.
The government should make a full public disclosure of the entire operations of the Commercial Hub initiative over the last fifteen years, and the extent of garbage and non-garbage trade in these operations. In his statement in parliament on July 26, Minister Samaraweera railed that the “the importer of the container loads of garbage to Sri Lanka had violated all laws and regulations,” including Customs Ordinance, the Environment Act and the Basel Convention. According to the Minister, the government is looking into the possibility of filing criminal charges against those involved in the import of garbage from Britain, and Minister went on to suggest that a much stronger punishment than the usual fine of three times the value of imports under customs regulations is warranted. But stronger punishment requires legislative authorization in parliament, and there is nothing to suggest changes are being considered.
Nor has there been any suggestion in parliament from either the government or the opposition that the whole entrepot trade in garbage should be seriously revisited. The preferred assumption seems to be that the 241 garbage containers from Britain is a one-off case of bad apple and nothing more needs to be done than punishing the offenders. The Minister and the editorial commentaries are also astonished that these containers could have been sent from Britain in violation of the Basel Convention which bans the export of haphazard waste. The fact of the matter is that there is no global policing of garbage shipments to enforce the Basel Convention. And once trading in garbage between countries was enabled through legislations and regulations, the private actors and companies at either end of the transaction have got used to operating with impunity.
This pattern is quite evident from the recent flareups in garbage trade in a number of Asian countries including the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia and Cambodia. And Sri Lanka is no exception, except those who inspired the legal and regulatory changes, in 2013, to enable trading in garbage came up with the clever concepts of entrepot trade and commercial hubs. Garbage will be imported for the purpose of ‘resource recovery’ and re-exported. This argument is being bandied around even now by some of the parties who brought home the 241 garbage containers from Britain. But someone has to explain the worthiness of resources buried in used and dumped British mattresses that they could be imported, processed and re-exported. What niche technology is developed and internalized in this exercise? And is this the new direction for expansion in a company like Hayleys that has been Sri Lanka’s leader in converting the island’s precious resources into industrial and consumer products? Who is the thought-leader in the present government, or the Rajapaksa-opposition, waiting to be government, who will lead a national discussion on the role of imported garbage for Sri Lanka’s long waited industrial take-off?
As examples go, there are two countries at either end of the spectrum. One is China that deliberately chose to import recycled garbage from the West as part of its modern industrial take off. The operation was massive given China’s size and capacity and it went on for decades – importing recycled material (mostly plastic), reprocessing and exporting them as different products. But it could not go on indefinitely as China was having to deal with the mounting residual waste and given its own economic expansion and prosperity. In January 2018, China shut its doors to foreign plastic waste. The ban on ‘yang laji’ (foreign garbage) became a cultural rejection of imported waste.
China’s closure put market pressure on other neighbouring countries to provide the substitution for China. They too have woken up to the fallouts from this business, and sooner or later western societies will have to come to terms with their own consumption levels and the moral escape of sending their massive plastic waste elsewhere as recyclables. It is not only plastic, but the entire end of the chain leftovers of the computer universe. African and the three South Asian countries have been the main recipients of computer waste. For how long, is the question.
At the other end is Sweden, the only western country to ‘import’ waste, but for diametrically opposite reasons. Sweden processes and recycles its national waste virtually hundred percent. In the process, it has built so much capacity for waste treatment in many forms, that it has to import waste to feed its treatment plants. Sri Lanka is too small to emulate China, and it is not in the same plane technologically as Sweden to toy with imported garbage. The island’s smallness has its advantages in that it can find economic wherewithal for its people without bringing in mattresses for recovering resources. As for garbage, the government, now or after elections, should find a way to processing domestic garbage without playing into the hands of busybodies interested in fancy entrepot trade and garbage hubs.