This Indonesian activist wants Canada to stop sending plastic waste abroad

Aeshnina Azzahra in Ottawa last week, where she is attended a global summit on plastic waste. As the summit comes to a close, activists are hoping for commitment on shipments of plastic abroad.  (Christian Patry/CBC - image credit)
Aeshnina Azzahra in Ottawa last week, where she is attended a global summit on plastic waste. As the summit comes to a close, activists are hoping for commitment on shipments of plastic abroad. (Christian Patry/CBC - image credit)

While a student in junior high, Aeshnina Azzahra discovered that a village near her home in Indonesia had become a dumping ground for plastic waste from Western countries.

Plastic has made its way into the local rivers, roadsides, farmland and beaches, she said.

"It's really shocking for me," recalled Azzahra, now 16.

"It's really weird for me to believe it, because the developed countries have more money, and more advanced technology."

Azzahra is in Ottawa with her father, also an environmental activist, for a week-long summit that wraps up Monday.

Negotiators from 176 countries have been involved in the fourth round of talks to create a global treaty to eliminate plastic waste.

In Indonesia, Azzahra said, the recycling industry isn't well regulated, and the material that is actually processed can end up producing harmful chemicals in the air and water.

"It has no good technology, no safety, it's really dangerous for the workers — and they just throw the wastewater directly to the river, with no treatment at all," she said.

"My main message is to stop exporting plastic waste to developing countries."

Submitted by Prigi Arisandi
Submitted by Prigi Arisandi

U.S. and beyond

Last year, Canada exported 202 million kilograms of plastic waste, up from 183 million kilograms the year prior, according to the government's own data it provides to global tracking agency UN Comtrade.

The majority of that plastic is shipped to the United States, but it's unclear what happens after that. Plastic waste from the U.S. is often exported overseas. Canada's second-largest export market is Malaysia, which became a major global destination for the world's plastic waste after China abruptly banned most imports in 2017.

Environmental activists say sending shipments to the U.S. exploits a loophole in the Basel Convention, an international treaty that prohibits rich countries from offloading trash to poorer countries without prior, informed consent.

Under Canadian law, companies are allowed to export some recyclables, including paper, metal and plastic, for processing, but shipments can often be mixed with household trash, soiled containers or unrecyclable plastic.

A 2022 Fifth Estate/Enquête investigation found more than 100 shipping containers were returned to Canada over a five-year period after foreign authorities discovered violations of international waste export regulations.

During that time, there were only six fines totalling less than $9,000 handed out against four companies and two individuals, and none of them were named publicly, the investigation found.

"Canada has continued to send waste to developing countries," said Lilly Woodbury, with the environmental group Surfrider Foundation Canada.

"It's a broken system. It's cheaper for them to ship it overseas than to recycle it here."

NDP MP Gord Johns tabled a motion last week, ahead of the Ottawa summit, calling on the federal government to stop shipping plastic waste to the U.S.

The motion argues that doing so has allowed Canada to "avoid" the Basel convention. It also calls for the government to ratify an amendment in the convention that forbids the export of hazardous wastes to developing countries.

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At the Ottawa summit, Johns said he met with representatives from developing countries who wanted to see shipments stop.

"The main message we heard is they don't have the infrastructure and systems in place to recycle the materials properly," said Johns, MP for Courtenay—Alberni in B.C.

"Canadians would be horrified to learn that when they go to the recycling bin and put out their recycling, that it's actually having a seriously negative impact on people living in developing countries."

Kathleen Ruff, a long-time human rights advocate who has been critical of Canada's export practices, said the only way the dynamic will change is if "rich countries take responsibility for cutting back on their waste."

"If they do create waste, they must take responsibility to deal with it in an ecologically responsible way in their own country," Ruff said.

Meeting with Guilbeault

Azzahra has sent letters to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and other world leaders, asking them to commit to cracking down on sending recycling waste abroad.

Last week, she met briefly with Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault in Ottawa, and she said he committed to trying to make it happen.

Spencer Colby/The Canadian Press
Spencer Colby/The Canadian Press

Guilbeault's office did not immediately return a request for comment by deadline.

The minister recently announced a registry, requiring plastic producers to detail the quantity and type of plastic they put into the Canadian market.The federal government says roughly nine per cent of the country's plastic is recycled. The rest ends up in landfills or back in the environment.

On Friday, Guilbault said talks on a treaty to end plastic waste were progressing well, and he is confident a deal will be reached this fall when the final negotiations are held in South Korea.

Assahra says her own message is simple.

"Please think about us — the future generation — because we all have the rights to live in a safe, healthy and plastic free environment."

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