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Australia just can't get past waste colonialism

September 22, 2022
topics: Pollution
by: Chermaine Lee
located in: Australia, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, Philippines
tags: Australia, Biofuel, colonialism, plastic pollution, plastic waste, Southeast Asia

Experts say the country's hailed waste export ban does not solve waste colonialism, and allows it to keep dumping toxic substances packaged as biofuel on developing nations in Southeast Asia.

With waste exports from Global North to Global South countries growing rapidly, Australia’s 2020 plastic waste export ban was launched with great fanfare. But just a few years later, the once well-received law is now deemed "hypocritical" by critics, as the nation's plastic waste still finds its way to Asian countries. 

Under the two-phase law, from July 2021 on companies can only export waste plastics that have been sorted into single resin or processed with other materials into processed engineered fuel - an alternative fuel in cement kilns made from non-recyclable waste materials. As of July this year, these companies are obligated to process such waste before exporting them. 

Australia is one of the world’s highest per capita generators of single-use plastic waste, according to a report by the International Pollutants Elimination Network (IPEN). Each Australian consumes about 100kg of plastic each year, but only about 13 percent of used plastic is recycled. Households are the largest contributor of plastic waste, accounting for nearly half of all 1.2 million tonnes across the country. 

The Asian-Pacific nation aimed to reach an ambitious 70 percent recycling rate of plastic waste by 2025, but a recent report showed that without further measures, it can only achieve less than half of its target over the next three years. What’s also alarming is that these plastic wastes end up in the ocean and often float over to Southeast Asian nations already susceptible to pollution and climate change-induced extreme weather events. 

Is PEF greenwashing?

This explains the hard-earned joy environmentalists felt when the law was announced. But this jubilation was quickly overcome by doubt.

Jane Bremmer, a campaigner at the NGO Zero Waste Australia, was one of those disillusioned with the legislation. 

"While Zero Waste Australia supports the Australian government's intention to improve the standards for waste management in Australia," Bremmer told FairPlanet, “this waste export ban does not in effect reduce the export of wastes, particularly plastic waste."

"The ban merely commodifies mixed plastic waste into a product known as PEF, and provides a new market for the export of reprocessed plastic, largely PET, as a single polymer," she added. "Australia therefore continues to export its waste under new rebranded definitions of what constitutes a waste."

Their organisation penned a joint study with IPEN which suggests that PEF, a derivative of refuse-derived fuels (RDF) involve "inherent toxicity risks and hazards of petrochemical based plastic waste containing toxic additive."

The report said RDFs contain a concentration of chlorine as high as 56-74 percent. The burning of these wastes results in adverse health impacts including airway irritation, chest tightness, eye and skin irritation and fluid build-up in the lungs. 

RDF is seen as a substitute to fossil fuel in the energy-intensive cement plants, and a way to reduce landfills. But some scientists found that the environmental footprint of burning such waste-based fuels is similar to that of coal-based fuels. The controversial alternative is seen by critics as Canberra’s "stealthy way" to handle its failure in regulating PEF and recycling businesses domestically. 

Waste colonialism

"Australia intends to export much of this PEF to Malaysia as part of the existing industry partnership they have with Resource Co," Bremmer added. "This PEF is poorly regulated in Australia and globally."

"There is no globally-harmonised system to define, regulate or export waste fuels," she said. "In effect, Australia is attempting to undermine its obligations to the Basel Convention, particularly the recent Basel Ban Amendments, by rebranding waste as a fuel for export and thus evading the prohibitions defined in the new Basel Ban amendment."

Bremmer said in a statement previously that certain waste management companies in Australia are "hiding plastic waste in paper and cardboard exports" to drill legal loopholes in the new law. 

Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines are some of the countries impacted by Australia’s continued waste exports. 

A spokesperson from Malaysia’s Consumers’ Association Penang made a strong-worded statement, "Why should we, the recipient communities in the developing country suffer the adverse impacts from dumping of residual wastes, toxics from the combustion of these wastes that are disguised as ‘fuels?

"Australia should stop the exports and dumping, take responsibility for your own waste. Do not export harm."

The 2019 Basel Ban amendment prohibits OECD member states, the EU and Liechtenstein to export hazardous waste. Climate colonialism and loss and damages are expected to take centre stage at the upcoming COP27 in Egypt, as developing economies are looking to double down pressure on wealthier nations like Australia to walk the talk and provide further aid. 

Green experts suggested that Australia should redesign its packaging and improve waste separation, collection and recycling for new products domestically by investing in residual waste research centres, instead of funneling cash into RDF incineration facilities in both Australia and the Asia Pacific region. 

They also suggest putting a halt to its RDF exports to Asian countries, and turning to safer fuel alternative like green hydrogen for cement production. 

Image by World Bank Photo Collection.

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Chermaine Lee
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Australia Malaysia Indonesia Thailand Philippines
The once well-received law is deemed “hypocritical” by critics.
Green experts suggest that Australia should redesign its packaging and improve waste separation, collection and recycling.
Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines are some of the countries impacted by Australia’s continued waste exports.
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