Environmental activists from across Southeast Asia are urging their governments to present a united front ahead of a major summit in Bangkok against a surge of plastic and electronic waste imports that are turning the regions into the world's "dumpsite."
Thailand, this year's chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), will host the leaders of the 10-country bloc for a four-day summit starting Thursday under the banner "Advancing Partnership for Sustainability."
But environmental rights groups see a glaring omission in their agenda.
"We are quite surprised and a little bit disappointed because ... the issue of waste trade that the region [is] facing has not been [put] on the table," Greenpeace Thailand country director Tara Buakamsri said at a press conference Tuesday in Bangkok.
The bloc is making a push to stem the tide of plastic waste washing into the region's seas and oceans. It is expected to adopt the Bangkok Declaration, its first agreement to tackle marine trash, at the summit.
"But it's not enough," Tara said.
For decades China had been the world's leading plastic trash importer, taking in nearly half the globe's output — some 9 million tons — at its peak in 2012, according to Greenpeace. That quickly changed after China abruptly banned most waste imports at the end of 2017 to cut back on the heavy pollution that came with processing and recycling it.
Middlemen scrambled to redirect the rivers of trash elsewhere; much of it landed in Southeast Asia, with its cheap labor and lax regulations. Malaysia soon took China's top spot, while other countries in the region also saw sharp spikes.
In Thailand, plastic waste imports from its top five source countries nearly tripled between the last quarter of 2017 and the second quarter of 2018 to some 150,000 tons, according to Trade Map figures cited in a new Greenpeace report, "Southeast Asia's Struggle Against the Plastic Waste Trade."
In the Philippines, it quadrupled to more than 1,000 tons over the same period, then skyrocketed to nearly 5,500 tons in the quarter after that.
China's move "changed the scenario, and ASEAN has become the world's new dumpsite," said Shanya Attasillekha, also with Greenpeace Thailand.
While some waste can be recycled to help fuel a developing country's manufacturing sector, much of it — especially when imported illegally or under false pretenses — is useless and ends up being burned or leaching harmful chemicals into the environment.
"Waste trade is about environmental and social injustice. Wherever waste goes, people suffer," said Lea Guerrero, country director for Greenpeace Philippines. "If you look at it, it's technically waste trafficking."
Some of the countries have started to push back.
A few imposed temporary or partial bans on waste imports by mid-2018. Malaysia and the Philippines have started shipping containers of mislabeled or illegally imported trash back to the countries they came from.
But the tactics are having mixed results.
Some of the source countries are hesitant to take their trash back; Canada recently said it had no plans to repatriate its waste from Malaysia, but is now in talks with the government, according to Reuters. And while bans imposed by some ASEAN countries last year sent imports tumbling, they have started to inch up again in Malaysia, Myanmar, Thailand, and Vietnam, says Greenpeace.
Their own bans also have rerouted trash flows yet again, this time to Indonesia and farther afield.
It's why Greenpeace and others say ASEAN must act in concert. They're urging the bloc to use the coming summit to immediately ban all plastic and electronic waste imports, even those meant for recycling, and to sign the Basel Convention Amendment.
All 10 ASEAN countries have signed the 1989 convention, which aims to restrict the international movement of hazardous waste. But only three — Brunei, Indonesia and Malaysia —also have adopted the recent amendment, which extends the treaty to plastics.
"This is not just a Malaysian problem or Canadian problem or U.S. problem or Philippines problem. This is an ASEAN problem, and all the countries need to make urgent joint declarations to end the trade in plastic waste imports from other countries," said Heng Kiah Chun, a campaigner with Greenpeace Malaysia.
Busadee Santipitaks, spokeswoman for Thailand's Foreign Affairs Ministry, which is organizing the summit, said Thailand was open to a coordinated and unified ban on plastic waste imports.
"If there is a concerted effort, we are fully supportive of it," she said Wednesday. "In principle, I think all countries are concerned with the trade of plastic waste ... and we probably would not like to see these things happen."
But ASEAN remains first and foremost an economic bloc, and Penchom Saetang, director of Ecological Alert and Recovery-Thailand, an NGO, warned that short-changing the environment would eventually harm its own cause.
She said a ban on electronic waste that Thailand is planning to impose soon includes exemptions the government has yet to spell out, and a new Factories Act loosens the inspection regime by which waste-processing sites must abide.
The Waste Division of Thailand's Industrial Works Department, which oversees the country's waste imports and processing, told VOA on Wednesday that no one was available to comment.
"If ASEAN leaders focus only on [the] economy and ignore damage of [the] environment, I think that in the near future this could bring some ruin to [the] economic situation," Penchom said.