Over 5,000 tons of hazardous waste from South Korea was recently discovered in the Philippines, marking the latest case of foreign dumping to stir outrage among Filipino officials and environmental groups as the island nation struggles to handle its own gargantuan garbage problem.

The toxic discovery, made on President Rodrigo Duterte’s home island of Mindanao, represents the third time in recent years that the Philippines has been revealed as a dumping ground for hazardous foreign trash. South Korea, one of Manila’s strongest allies and top investors, has been the culprit on two occasions.

The South Korean hazardous garbage was consigned to Verde Soko Philippines Industrial Corp, a company nominally engaged in plastic recycling. The firm declared the shipment, made in July, as “plastic synthetic wastes”, but customs officials found other kinds of waste, including hospital refuse and adult diapers.

The company has yet to start its recycling operation due to the controversy but has claimed the discovered hazardous trash is “raw material” for processing into plastic pellets and briquettes that could be shipped back to South Korea or China to produce plastic chairs and tables.

Verde Soko also maintains it has complied with all government requirements to set up a recycling plant at an economic zone in Mindanao’s Misamis Oriental province.

It’s not the first time the Philippines has been dumped on by the developed world. Around five years ago, Canada dumped over 100 container vans filled with plastic bottles, plastic bags, household garbage, used adult diapers, sanitary napkins and hospital wastes in Manila.

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A container of Canadian hazardous waste as discovered in the Philippines, February 2014. Photo: Basel Action Network

The trash was subsequently classified as “hazardous” under Republic Act 6969, or the Toxic Substances and Hazardous and Nuclear Waste and Control Act of 1990.

Discovered in 2014, the controversial Canadian garbage shipments severely strained Filipino-Canadian ties and cast a pall over Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who was slammed by environmentalists for the stink his country caused to Filipinos when he attended the Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit held in Manila in November 2017.

Like the Canadian refuse, South Korea’s 5,000 tons of garbage also contained hazardous waste. It was shipped and passed through the Mindanao International Container Terminal in the southern Philippine province of Misamis Oriental in July.

Another 5,000 tons of hazardous garbage from South Korea was discovered last year in the central Philippine island of Cebu. That trash pile was shipped back to the country after strong protests by the island’s local government.

The latest South Korean garbage controversy, which was reportedly wrongfully declared in shipment as “plastic synthetic flakes,” violates the 1989 Basel Convention, according to Benny Antiporda, an undersecretary at the Philippine department of environment and natural resources.

Antiporda has said that the government is preparing charges against the importer and consignee, as well as their exporting partners in South Korea, for shipping the hazardous garbage without an import permit. “The Philippines is not a trash bin,” he said.

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South Korean hazardous waste dumped in the Philippines, November 2018. Photo: Philippine Department of Environment and Natural Resources

The Basel Convention, to which 53 countries are signatories, is an international treaty to control the movement of hazardous waste between nations, specifically the transfer of hazardous waste from developed to less developed countries.

The Philippines, South Korea and Canada are all signatories to the Basel Convention.

Ottawa has yet to take back its garbage despite a court ruling in 2016 ordering its return and Trudeau’s pronouncement during his 2017 visit to Manila that it is now “theoretically” possible for Canada to bring back the trash.

Environmentalists have called on South Korea and Canada to follow the example of Japan, also a signatory to the Basel Convention, which more than a decade ago took back tons of hazardous waste it dumped in the Philippines in deference to the treaty.

“This (South Korean trash) is reminiscent of the Canada waste dumping case, which happened five years ago, and we say that we have enough. No amount of profit will justify the amount of garbage we receive from rich countries, be it from Canada or South Korea,” Greenpeace Philippines campaigner Abigail Aguilar said in a statement.

“While the Philippines itself is reeling from the amount of plastic waste we are generating, it is distressing that other countries are still looking at us to dispose of their wastes,” she added.

The nation’s garbage woes are particularly evident in Metro Manila, a megacity of over 12 million. The city is inundated in single-use consumer plastic product wrappers for shampoo, soap, tooth paste and cooking oil due to their affordability.

This photo taken on May 9, 2018 shows children walking on garbage filled bay in Manila. / AFP PHOTO / NOEL CELIS
Children walking on a garbage-filled bay in Manila, May 2018. Photo: AFP/Noel Celis

The plastic waste is often tossed in waterways that empty into the ocean and are then swept back to Manila by tidal currents, creating a soggy muck of trash-strewn shorelines.

Research shows that the Philippines is the third worst plastic polluter of oceans in the world, trailing only China and Indonesia, according to the Ocean Conservancy, a non-profit environmental advocacy group based in Washington.

Regional neighbors Thailand, Vietnam and Malaysia were also included on the world’s worst plastic polluters list.

In 2017, South Korea exported 4,397 tons of plastic waste to the Philippines. From January to September this year, South Korea sent 11,588 tons of plastic waste to the Philippines, according to data compiled by environmental watchdog Greenpeace Philippines.

The entire Philippine nation wants South Korea to immediately take back its waste and for Seoul to stop dumping its trash in all third world countries, Aguilar said. Bowing to the diplomatic pressure, Seoul recently assured it will take back its trash.

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Activists protest against South Korean dumping in the Philippines. Photo: Facebook

“(Our) government stated that it would take measures to have the wastes in question be brought back to Korea as soon as possible,” the Korean embassy said in a recent statement.

While also pushing for the immediate return of the Korean trash, Aileen Lucero, national coordinator of the EcoWaste Coalition, criticized the Philippine government for accepting foreign hazardous waste when it cannot manage its domestic garbage problem.

“Why do we keep on accepting garbage from other countries when we know that our country’s plastic waste, which is literally everywhere, is spilling to the oceans and endangering marine life?” Lucero said.

Some scientists have predicted that without a radical course shift the world’s oceans will contain more plastic than fish by 2050. Nearly 700 marine species are believed to have already been affected by mostly plastic trash dumped in the ocean.

While South Korea is taking progressive action to control its domestic plastic waste, including bans on plastic bags in supermarkets, it should also refrain from sending its plastic and other hazardous wastes to less developed countries abroad, Lucero added.