Incineration nation: Will the Philippines become Japan’s toxic waste dump?

Photo by firutin
Japan has little physical space for landfill sites, and seventy percent of incinerators worldwide are located there:

Until recently Japan had one solution to waste: burn it. Over 1800 incinerators burned the country’s 50 million tonnes of solid waste each year. Recycling exists but even some of that ends up in the incinerators. Japan is the consumer culture par excellence and the real struggle for zero waste will be over how to persuade people to buy less in the first place. Not easy when shopping is a national pastime.

Incineration stacks release toxic chemicals, such as dioxins, into the air which are transferred to humans through the food chain. Japan’s ambient levels of dioxins present in the atmosphere are reported to be 6 or 7 times higher than in Europe.

For every 1000 tons of waste incinerated in Japan, 100 tons of toxic ash residue must be disposed of but Japan obviously has no space for this, so what to do? In September 2006, Japan and the Philippines signed a free trade agreement, JPEPA, and pressure is being exerted by Philippine exporters for their country’s Senate to ratify it.

JPEPA is one of the many such agreements Japan has entered into lately, which are part of what is now a trend among developed countries — primarily Japan, the US and those in Europe — to negotiate bilateral trade pacts following the collapse of the Doha round of negotiations at the World Trade Organization.

Under the Japan-Philippines Economic Partnership Agreement, Japan would potentially have the freedom to dump its toxic wastes and hazardous materials into the Philippines.

Philippine trade officials admit that hazardous waste imports were offered as part of the deal – albeit just as a negotiating tactic.

“One of the items included is what we call hazardous toxic wastes,” Peter Favila, the Philippine trade secretary, said last month. “It does not mean that we allow them to ship waste to us.”

Favila said the inclusion was meant to prevent Japan from asking for more concessions on other Philippine products.

“If we didn’t do it, we would be forced to offer another product,” Favila said. “It’s a negotiation strategy.”

Provisions under the agreement require the Philippine government to lower tariff on at least 141 substances found to be potentially dangerous to the environment. The substances are among the 11,300 articles that would be traded between the Philippines and Japan under JPEPA, once the Senate ratifies it.

But Japan maintained that they will only export wastes to the country if the Philippine government would allow it.

Despite the provision, Japan stressed that they remain strongly committed to the strict enforcement of the 1989 Basel Convention on the Transboundary Movement of Toxic and Hazardous Wastes, to which Japan and the Philippines are both signatories. The convention prevents any illegal export of toxic and hazardous wastes to the Philippines.

Presidential spokesperson, Ignacio Bunye, said in a Manilla Times report, “This government will never allow, under any circumstances, the entry of toxic waste into Philippine soil,” he said. “Our existing laws and international treaties proscribe this and we shall uphold them unconditionally.”

Philippine Government assurances that they will not allow the waste to be dumped are viewed skeptically by groups such as Greenpeace and the Basel Action Network. Even Filipino economist Cielto Habito, involved in a study that paved the way for the agreement, had this to say:

“the issue really hinges on whether the Philippine government can be trusted to uphold and enforce our environmental laws and indeed our laws in general. And government’s track record, admittedly, does not merit that trust so far.”

The Philippines’ track record on waste dumping and landfill is far from good. Tens of thousands of people live in garbage-ridden slums on the edges of the big cities and hundreds of families eke out a living by scavenging on the rubbish dumps, a dangerous existence in a toxic environment.

In 1999, environmental groups pulled off an astounding victory by convincing the Philippines government to ban incineration, so it will be a tragic irony if they allow Japan’s ash waste to be dumped in their country.

The Philippines is a poor country. I can imagine the government relenting on waste-dumping once the agreement has been ratified because Japan will have the upper hand as the wealthy partner- it’s just the sort of thing that happens. With supporters of the JPEA both there and in Japan really pushing the deal as benefitting both countries enormously, it looks as though the agreement will be ratified. The consequences remain to be seen.

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