13 November, 2019

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Foreign Garbage: Toxic Colonialism Or Free Trade Cockup?

By Rajan Philips

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.  

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Latest comments

  • 3
    1

    I thought Dr Ranil’s preferred Elite, Rich Candidate of the UNP Mr Dhammika Perera imported the Pommy Trash?..

    I was sooo impressed with Mr Dhammaika’s Economics Whizardry, when he told the Press that he can wipe off the Yahpalana Budget Deficit as well as the Debt in one hit..

    Wonder how much our Ministers in charge of Import and Exports and Free Trade Zones collected ?..

    BTW our Opposition Leader must ensure Haleys Container Rigs don’t come near the South..

    Otherwise I will be with the Dalits to protect our environment although my people do not own any Lands there unlike the North and the East..

    • 1
      0

      KASmaalam K.A. Sumanasekera

      “BTW our Opposition Leader must ensure Haleys Container Rigs don’t come near the South.”

      I am just wondering how did so much of trash was able come to this island’s south and settled down during Chola Pandya period, especially your ancestors.
      They must have landed a spear in one hand, their willy on the other, UN human right charter on the other, … .

      Is Chana Jayasumana a Sinhala/Buddhist?
      Is he an intellectual par excellent?
      Is he a Gota supporter?
      Who do you think make good fascist?
      If Dr Chana (MBBS, PhD, FRCP Edin) contested next against Dr Gota (MSc, DSc….) whose b***s would you willingly carry?
      Have you ever considered contesting parliamentary elections yourself?

      • 2
        0

        Sri Lanka belongs to its Youth and Younger Generation.
        The age of corrupt generation of dodos and their apologists who have ruined Lanka and turned it into a garbage, debt trapped, dump is over — just like their doddering analysts like this author should get lost!
        Sambanthan and Andandasangaree want to contest literally from the Grave !!!

        People want change and new faces and those over the age of 60 should be banned from contesting elections. Sajith, Dayasiri, Sunil Handunetti, et should contest. Same for the Saudi -bought Wahabi Muslim politicians, one and all who are the scum of the earth and betrayed the Muslims of Lanka.

    • 4
      0

      Rajan Philips folk like you are part of the problem
      The garbage came from the British Indian Ocean territory that has the US Diego Garcia military base – the illegally occupied Chagos Islands
      The Indian Ocean is the garbage dump of US and UK and NATO military bases and the EU and other Distant water fishing states that are plundering and looting the marine resources.
      US invented a new ocean called the Indo Pacific to legitimize US EU and NATO colonial occupation of Indian Ocean Islands.
      https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/exclusive-world-s-most-pristine-waters-are-polluted-by-us-navy-human-waste-9193596.html

      Muslims (like the IS narrative owned and operated by US forces), are again used to further the imperial agenda to set up ‘logistics hubs’ in multiple ways.

  • 2
    2

    Mr Philip, this little bit of garbage is not going to do any damage to lanka. The whole country including the parliament is rotting with uncollected garbage and so why worry this bit? If we can earn some foreign exchange for the politicians and stooges to have a good life why not import all the world wide garbage to Sri Lanka. We have already exported all the people that could have contributed something to Lanka and so only thing left is to import garbage. Can we also encourage Blind Eagle alias HLD too to be imported along from Aussie Garbage. Even during earlier times we imported used clothes from abroad as “bales” and sold at the pavements and our locals suddenly became stylish and well dressed in nice jackets, trousers, jumpers and sweaters. Then we became a junk yard for old japanese cars, busses and lorries. All know the journey in mitsubisi busses bent into two because of its height. Then came the Tsunami (not Mr Sunami who was received by Mahinda at the airport) and came used items from all over the world and the good items were pilfered by horas while the useless items were given to the poor nathi bari janathawa. So now comes the western rotting garbage at the right time when the whole country is stinking. So this is part of our modern, post independent history. We also can encourage the tourists to bring their home garbage along with them and we could buy that.

  • 2
    0

    Foreign Garbage

    People want to be surrounded by beauty. Foreigners who wants to be surrounded by garbage? on what view do the exporters view sri lanka. The have read the governors ruling attitude. country became center for
    global garbage dumps.

  • 1
    0

    Thanks Rajan for a well thought out response to the business of importing garbage. The people who made a killing will never be held accountable by any government. Idiotic voters (who support all political parties) will never understand.

  • 1
    0

    Dear Sir

    Thank you for the article on a very important subject ‘global waste management’ and the implications to the Nations like ours.

    “the importer of the container loads of garbage to Sri Lanka had violated all laws and regulations,”

    The entire chain of people involved should be brought to the UN for prosecution under ‘Crime Against Humanity’…………………………foreign sponsored terrorism/arms trade and now this……………………how can we survive this & have we leaned anything as a Nation of People?

    • 0
      0

      Dear Sir

      The following documentaries explains the origins and monetary transfer of the respective countries tax payers money under PRN (PACKAGING RECOVERY NOTE) to anyone who is unpatriotic enough will take the respective garbage away.dump it in their own country………this PRN suppose to encourage local recycling/solid waste management/Research and Development in the respective countries yet for decades everyone kept a blind eye for ‘all’ kind of waste to be transferred out to someone else door step. However now the Chinese have said anything they will import/buy in the open market for reuse/recycling (no one ever intend to buy non recyclable waste) they will physically have a person checking the packaging before is exported ie as a quality controller.

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oRQLilXLAIU
      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lqrlEsPoyJk

      One and only work at the top of the list/priority for any developing Nation is to manage Solid Waste as a No 1 item because we have not even managing our own waste Scientifically for decades then what are the chances of dealing with the immoral world??

  • 1
    1

    Sri Lanka will be rubbish dump of China soon …if not all parts but some parts in South..
    It is good time that China did not ask some part in north or east ..
    Let sinahalese of South pay the price for voting Mahinda family ..
    Vote for Goata to see more of this kind ????
    Mahinda family brought destruction to the country…
    They freed from tigers but now elephants are eating it

  • 3
    0

    We are a nation struggling to dispose our waste without hurting our environment. Should we need foreign garbage as well. We really do not know what are the real contents inside these containers which.can create various unknown sicknesses to our citizens.
    The govt whilst taking all necessary actions against those responsible and ensuring the reexport of all remaining garbage, the laws must be amended to ensure no further such rubbish entering.our shores using whatever modern terminologies in trade.

  • 0
    1

    I don’t think anything wrong with importing medical garbage and incinerating those in a set up that is similar that incinerate human bodies. they could have berried the left over
    Sri lanka is a dumb country. They certainly politicized it and Mahinda Rajapakse govt began, it and continued. during the election time of this govt they made it a political issue.
    Certainly, there had been lack of management. that is why photos show garbage exposed to air.

  • 0
    0

    Indonesia, china, India, Bangladesh l those countries did this kind of work handling developed west’s garbage. Sri lanka can do that too. Right at the election time they got it out to make it a political issue. Parliamentarians are just liars and not workers. so, they can not handle it and they do not know what to say. That is typical Sri lanka.

  • 2
    1

    This is not the first time British dumped garbage in other countries. As colonial rulers, they took lot of garbage from Hindusthan and dumped them in Sinhale, Malaya, Burma, Fiji, Madagascar and some African countries and disappeared giving headache to Native people.

    • 1
      1

      EE
      Go home.
      “As colonial rulers, they took lot of garbage from Hindusthan and dumped them in Sinhale,”

      Now they call themselves Sinhala/Buddhists, in fact fascists. This noisy minority is an affront to human decency, dignity, humanity, … peace, …
      For example you are a card carrying Sinhala/Buddhists FASCIST.

      Go home.

    • 1
      0

      Usual pile of shit from the myopic Eagle Eye. We have controlled our affairs for over 70 years now, so it was not the old mastah but the new local business mahathuru who have helped bring about this sad state of affairs. A smartish manipulation of our import/export rules from about 2005 has worked well for at least a dozen smart cookies who latched on to profits available from ‘recyling’ foreign shit on our pristine shores. Sadly, the sinister downside has been a health disaster for those within the Peliyagoda, Jaela, Ragama triangle, where there has been a marked increase in cancers. A result of ‘cottage industries’ where plastics are burned off to reclaim valuable metals. A case of the old English saying ‘where there’s shit, there’s brass’.

  • 1
    0

    Yes, good article. See how Indonesia has started sending back similarly imported garbage container-loads:

    https://www.news18.com/news/world/indonesia-returns-seven-illegally-imported-waste-containers-to-france-hong-kong-2251843.html

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