Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte gave Canada an ultimatum this week: Take back dozens of shipping containers filled with Canadian waste that have languished near Manila for six years – or he will send them over himself.
“I will advise Canada, that your garbage is on the way. Prepare a grand reception. Eat it if you want to,” he said.
Legal and human rights activists in both countries have repeatedly demanded that Canada take back and dispose of the waste, which a Canadian company exported to the Philippines in 2013 and 2014.
A Filipino court even ordered the Canadian government to take back the waste in 2016, but nothing has been done.
Instead, just over 100 containers of household waste and other hazardous materials – more than two thousand tonnes that rights groups have said were first fraudulently labelled as recycling plastics – remain in and around the Filipino capital.
And now, Duterte has said he is prepared to “declare war against [Canada]” to remedy the situation.
“Prepare and celebrate because your garbage is coming home,” he said on Tuesday.
‘Not a dumpsite’
The president’s comments were welcomed by Aileen Lucero, national coordinator of the EcoWaste Coalition, a Filipino environmental advocacy group, who said she was glad to see the issue back under the spotlight.
Six years have gone by since the first shipment of 53 cargo containers full of Canadian household waste arrived in the Philippines, Lucero told Al Jazeera in a telephone interview, and another 50 containers arrived in 2014.
About two dozen of those containers have been sent to landfills, while the others remain at ports in Manila and Subic, a town northwest of the capital.
“The Philippines is already suffering from our own household waste, our own solid waste. It is really difficult for us to receive garbage from developed countries,” Lucero said.
“The Philippines is not a dump site for the developed countries,” she said. “The waste is still here. It still needs to be sent back to Canada for its proper disposal.”
The issue at hand, explained Fe De Leon, a researcher and paralegal at the Canadian Environmental Law Association in Ontario, is “why did [the waste] end up there and whose obligation is it to deal with that mess?”
“In this case, when they uncovered the fact that there was household waste that ranged from regular dirty diapers to plastics to appliances to electrical material, that became the problem. That’s mixed waste,” she told Al Jazeera.
De Leon said that while some details around the way the waste was shipped remain unanswered, the rubbish should never have ended up in the Philippines in the first place.
“It should have been managed and disposed of safely here in our own country, within our own boundaries,” she said.
The case also raises questions, De Leon added, about whether the United Nations convention that governs shipments of hazardous materials between countries needs to be reviewed.
That framework is known as the Basel Convention.
An international treaty that sets out regulations for transnational transfers, and the disposal, of hazardous materials, the Basel Convention is central to what’s happening in the Philippines.
Entering into force in 1992 and ratified by 187 parties, including Canada and the Philippines, the convention outlines rules around what constitutes hazardous material, how shipments must be labelled, what documentation is needed, and the informed consent of countries taking in the waste.
The company that sent the rubbish to the Philippines first said it was recyclable plastic, but upon inspection, it turned out to be household waste, said Anthony Ho, a lawyer at the Pacific Centre for Environmental Law and Litigation in British Columbia.
“The Philippine authorities did not give consent to this Canadian exporter to be shipping household garbage” and therefore, “those shipments are considered illegal traffic under the Basel Convention”, Ho told Al Jazeera.
It’s, therefore, clear that Canada violated the convention, Ho said.
He said the treaty places the onus on the Canadian government to ensure illegal shipments are brought back to Canada within 30 days from when it was first notified of the exports.
While the Philippines told Canada in March 2014 about the waste, Ottawa had argued that it did not have the legal provisions to bring it back, Ho said.
Previously, Canadian law did not classify household waste as a hazardous material, and the government also said it did not have a way to pursue a company that was accused of an illegal transfer.
Ottawa passed legislative amendments to address these loopholes in 2016, Ho explained, and he said the Canadian government now “has the legislative tools it needs”.
“If, at the end of the day, the state of export can’t compel the company to ship back the waste, the obligation rests ultimately on the government in question to ensure that the waste is transferred back for proper disposal,” he said.
Nonetheless, “the key enforcement mechanism,” Ho added, “is really political will and pressure.”
Canada ‘committed’ to solution
The Canadian government so far has taken no concrete steps to bring the waste back to Canada.
During a visit to the Philippines in 2017 to attend that year’s ASEAN Summit, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said it was “theoretically possible to get [the garbage] back”.
Trudeau said, however, that Canada and the Philippines were still in discussions about how to deal with the issue, Filipino news outlet Rappler reported at the time.
“There’s still a number of questions around who would pay for it, where the financial responsibility is. This was at its origin a commercial transaction. It did not involve government,” Trudeau said.
But Lucero said that while many people in the Philippines took the Canadian prime minister’s words as a hopeful sign that things would soon be resolved, they have since been let down.
“It is really frustrating for the Filipino people … It seems that they just issued those promises to silence us,” Lucero said.
“We need to have accurate and concrete timeline this time, not just a promise that they will take back. What we are asking them is when? When are you going to take back [the waste]? It should be as immediately as possible.”
This week, a spokesperson for Canada’s environment minister told Al Jazeera that Ottawa “is strongly committed to collaborating with the Philippines government to resolve this issue”.
In an emailed statement on Wednesday, Sabrina Kim said a joint working group “consisting of officials from both countries” is looking into the issues, “with a view to a timely resolution”.
Kim did not specify when a decision was expected, however, but added that Canada’s 2016 amendments to regulations around shipping hazardous waste aimed “to prevent such events from happening again”.
‘A critical moment’
Kathleen Ruff, director of RightOnCanada.ca, a human rights advocacy group in Canada, said words are not enough, however. “It’s time to take action,” she told Al Jazeera. “The question that comes up is … if Canada thumbs its nose at the law, why should any country obey international environmental law? It’s sending a terrible message … and it’s treating [people in] developing countries as second-class citizens.”
Still, Ruff said there is reason for optimism, pointing to comments Canada’s ambassador to the Philippines, John Holmes, made this week.
Holmes told Filipino news outlet ABS-CBN on Wednesday that Trudeau “committed and has recommitted to resolving this issue, including taking the waste back to Canada”.
Ruff also said a meeting next week in Geneva that will bring all the parties of the Basel Convention together is an important chance to strengthen global environmental protections.
She said two measures that are expected to be voted on may usher in important reforms.
The first proposal, put forward by Norway, would outlaw exports of plastic waste, and the other would ban waste exports to developing countries, she explained.
“It is a serious global problem … We know that if you can just dump your waste, then there’s no incentive to lessen the amount of waste you produce because you can just make them disappear,” Ruff said.
“It’s a very critical moment.”