Canada Agrees to Take Its Trash Back From the Philippines

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A six-year dispute over mislabeled shipping containers has been settled, but the world can learn an important lesson from this.

The Canada-Philippines garbage dispute is finally coming to an end. After years of arguing over what to do with 69 shipping containers of Canadian household trash (including kitchen scraps and diapers) and electronic waste that were mislabeled as recyclable plastic scraps and shipped to the Philippines between 2013 and 2014, Canada has agreed to take them back.

Philippines president Rodrigo Duterte had upped the emotional rhetoric in recent weeks, threatening to "declare war" on Canada over this issue. In late April he stated,

"I will declare war against them. I will advise Canada that your garbage is on the way. Prepare a grand reception. Eat it if you want to. Your garbage is coming home."

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had been quizzed about the garbage issue on two previous visits to the Philippines. He responded in 2015, saying there was "no legal way to force the Canadian company to deal with the trash," but his stance had softened by 2017, saying "it was 'theoretically' possible for Canada to do something." Now a formal offer has been made to have the containers shipped back to Vancouver's port.

The Philippine government wants them gone by May 15 at the latest, and Ottawa will cover the costs. But apparently, "bureaucratic red tape in the Canadian government has slowed down the process of re-exporting the trash back to their country," so there's a chance that deadline won't be met.

I have been watching this dispute with interest and amusement. There is not much I like about Duterte, but it surely feels like he's hit the nail on the head with this issue. As a Canadian and as someone who believes firmly in a country's responsibility to deal with its own trash – and not off-shore it to a poorer, less regulated nation on the other side of the world where it's burned, buried, dumped at sea, or left to poison the surrounding population – this serves as a valuable lesson to many.

Western nations should take note and start scrambling to fix their own broken waste disposal systems, improving recycling rates and composting facilities, and incentivizing reusable and refillable containers in stores. Eastern nations such as Malaysia, Indonesia, India, and Vietnam, which have been inundated with additional waste since China's ban on plastic imports took effect in January 2018, should feel encouraged by the Philippines' stance. They, too, should refuse to be dumping grounds for wealthier nations.

Oh, how people's habits would change if we kept all our trash in our own backyards! And now it looks like we might just have to; at least, it will be somewhat closer to home, and thus somewhat more on our minds – and that's a good thing.