Southeast Asia turning into a toxic dumping ground? Toxic stockpile in Malaysia is tip of the iceberg.

Feature story - June 10, 2004
A regional consensus among ASEAN member states is urgently needed to stem the tidal wave of toxic and hazardous waste that is often heaped upon countries in the region, according to environmental group Greenpeace.

It said that, in effect, ASEAN countries, by not implementing the Basel Convention , are condoning the exposure of their people and environments to toxic materials which other countries do not want.

The call is being made in view of the recent discovery of an illegal stockpile of copper oxide sludge in a brick-making factory in Johor, Malaysia. Malaysian authorities are now taking steps to repatriate the 12,000 ton stockpile which was imported into the country illegally from Taiwan.

"This case could be the proverbial tip of the iceberg. If this can happen in Malaysia which is a party to the Basel Convention and has ratified the Basel Ban Amendment , what more for the other countries in the region?" said Francis de la Cruz, Toxics Campaigner of Greenpeace Southeast Asia.

Greenpeace has observed that in the last few years, Southeast Asia has been made a favorite destination for the waste trade. Huge volumes of toxic trash, like used lead acid batteries, old tyres, computer and electronic wastes, medical waste and incinerator ash have found their way to the Philippines, Thailand and Cambodia. Some of the waste are brought in in the guise of recycling, but is actually a ruse to avoid the high cost of disposal for these wastes in the country of origin.

From 2000-2003, more than 4,000 tons of used lead acid batteries from New Zealand have been exported to the Philippines for recycling in a lead smelting plant which has been the subject of complaints by the local community.

In 2003, about 20 tonnes of industrial hazardous wastes from the United Kingdom were discovered at the Klong Toey port in Bangkok, Thailand. The shipment was later abandoned by the importer and efforts were made to send them back to the United Kingdom.

In 1999 2,700 tons of incinerator ash, contaminated with mercury, were dumped in Cambodia by Formosa Plastics Corporation from Taiwan.

The Southeast Asian region appears to be a particularly susceptible target to international waste traders due to the absence of a regional regulatory framework, coupled with weak national regulatory regimes to address waste trade.

"The national bans against importation of hazardous waste will me more effective if there is a regional ban. International waste traders cannot just look for the next country with weaker legislation and ply their immoral and environmentally-harmful trade," said Mr de la Cruz.

Greenpeace urged the ASEAN member states to ratify the Basel Ban Amendment at the earliest possible date so that it could enter into legal force as soon as possible. The Basel Ban Amendment, once it is ratified by 62 Parties will become part of the Basel Convention and will effectively place a global prohibition on the export of hazardous wastes from member states of the European Union, or the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) to other countries. So far, the amendment has received 44 out of the 62 necessary ratifications. Among the ASEAN members, only Malaysia and Brunei have ratified the Basel Ban Amendment.

"By throwing ASEAN support to the Basel Ban Amendment, all ambiguity of the illegality of these shipments would be erased, and the onus would fall on the exporting nations to prosecute the illegal shipments as a criminal offense," he added.

"It is clear that the status quo has emboldened the international waste traders to use the ASEAN countries as a dump for the industrial world's toxic waste. It is time for the ASEAN to get it's act together on the environmental front," he concluded.