The Canada/Philippines Garbage War of 2019

Somewhere near you right now is a garbage can. Maybe it’s in your kitchen, and there’s a lot of food waste in there; maybe it’s near your desk, and there may be some paper or something. Or maybe it’s in your bathroom, and we’ll not go into details on what’s inside. From your perspective, that’s pretty close to the end of the story — sure, you’ll move that trash into a larger trash can in your garage or send it down a garbage chute, and then once or twice a week, a big truck comes by and takes it away. But for the trash itself, when you place it into the nearest receptacle, that’s only the start of the story. All of that trash has to go somewhere.

The good news is that there are actually a lot of places that will gladly take your trash — for a fee, of course. Locally, you probably have a town dump or landfill, recycling centers, incinerators that convert some waste to usable energy, and a few other options as well. But there are also non-local solutions. For example, it is not uncommon for richer nations to sell their garbage to poorer ones.

Unfortunately, although not surprisingly, those arrangements can be abused. In 1989, many of the world’s nations adopted a treaty called the Basel Convention, which regulates the export of hazardous waste. In general, if Country A sends trash to Country B, Country B can refuse to accept hazardous trash that arrives at its ports; if they do, Country A has to take it back. And in 2013-2014, that’s what happened in the Philippines — kind of.

Over the course of those two years, a Canadian waste management company called Chronic Plastics shipped 103 containers of what they claimed were recyclable plastics from Vancouver, Canada, to Manila, Philippines. But when the shipping containers arrived in Manila, the customs agents found that many of the containers didn’t contain recycles at all — as the New York Times reported, “dozens of the containers held used adult diapers, household garbage, plastic bags and other waste.” The Philippines, citing the Basel Convention, told Canada to take its trash back.

Canada refused the refuse. According to the Filipino news site ABS-CBN, “Canadian officials [. . .] said there was no violation of the Basel Convention as the shipment did not contain hazardous waste.” Canada was correct on that factual matter — Philippines officials agreed that the waste, despite containing adult diapers, wasn’t what would be considered “hazardous” under the Basel Convention — but argued that the principles behind the international treaty were still relevant: you can’t lie about what kind of trash you’re exporting and expect the importer to take it. In 2016, two years after the discovery of the mislabeled trash, a Filipino court agreed with its own government and ordered Canada to take back the trash.

Canada, not being bound by the Filipino court, effectively ignored the ruling. (In its defense, around the same time, Canada did pass a law that required companies like Chronic Plastics to recover trash wrongly sent to other nations, but that law didn’t appear to apply retroactively.) Other nations had similarly sent mislabeled trash to the Philippines and, upon discovery of the mistake, had taken back the garbage — as Time reports, South Korea took back 51 containers of misclassified trash six months after the mistake was discovered — but Canada held firm. And at first, it looked like that would be the end of the story.

In 2019, five years after this mess began, that changed. That April, the Philippines was struck by a major earthquake, and the world’s attention focused on the country and the relief efforts. The nation’s president, Rodrigo Duterte, used the attention as an opportunity to threaten Canada over the trash issue — even suggesting that he’d fight them if need be. As the New York Times reported, Duterte, in a news conference, stated “Canada, I want a boat prepared. I’ll give a warning to Canada, maybe next week, that they better pull that thing out or I will set sail. [ . . .] We will declare war against them.”

Canada missed the deadline but Duterte was undeterred. He didn’t declare war but he did re-up the threat, giving Canada a new deadline — May 15th — to pick up the trash, or else. Canada ultimately gave in. According to the National Post, “after years of negotiations, including the establishment of a working group with officials from both countries, Canada announced in mid-May that it had hired a firm to dispose of the waste. The contract value [for the pick up of the trash was] more than $1.1 million.” And no, Chronic Plastics wasn’t on the hook for that — in the intervening five years, they went out of business. 

Bonus fact: If you get married in the Philippines, you probably can’t get divorced, at least for now. As the Economist explained in 2020, “The Philippines has extremely socially conservative laws. It is the only country in the world, bar the Vatican City, to outlaw divorce (except for Muslims). The only way of ending a marriage, short of dying, is to have it annulled, but that can be done only on narrow grounds and at great expense.” (The nation is 80% Roman Catholic; the exception for Muslims is because that religion, at 5% of the population, makes up the only sizable non-Christian minority.) But that may change soon — in recent weeks, the state legislature passed a bill that would allow for divorce, as CNN reports, “for married couples who are in a dysfunctional or abusive relationship.”

From the Archives: How One Generation’s Trash Became Another’s Vacation: You shouldn’t litter, but if you do, this isn’t a half-bad outcome.