Sri Lanka returns first batch of imported waste from the UK

The first batch of 21 containers out of a total of 263 was labeled for recycling, but has been uncovered to be medical waste. This constitutes a violation of the Basel Convention that regulates the global movement of hazardous waste.

A landfill in Colombo, Sri Lanka
A landfill in Colombo, Sri Lanka. Waste Action LK-WALK Facebook page

Sri Lanka has sent back the first batch of hundreds of containers of waste to the UK., becoming the latest nation in the Global South to push back against abuses of a worldwide recycling framework by exporters in the West.

An initial consignment of 21 containers arrived back in the UK., the county of origin, in late November, according to the ship-tracking data. There are still another 242 containers waiting to be shipped back, according to Sri Lanka Customs.

Sri Lanka, like many other countries in the Global South, routinely imports waste from the West to recycle. The country is also a party to the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal, which means exporters must obtain its consent to send medical or other biohazardous waste.

But the exporters behind the containers in question appeared to have flouted that rule by packing their containers with suspected medical waste, according to a customs inspection in July 2019. Officials reported finding discarded mattresses, carpets and rugs that appeared to be soiled.

“In this case, Sri Lanka hasn’t received any request from the UK., so this is an illegal shipment,” Ajith Weerasundara, director of chemicals and hazardous waste management unit at the Central Environment Authority (CEA), told Mongabay. “We have officially requested the UK. to recall the hazardous waste.”

Sunil Jayarathne, a spokesman for Sri Lanka Customs, told Mongabay that the containers were imported by a Sri Lankan company between 2017 and 2018 for the stated purpose of recycling, mainly to extract any metal contained in the waste items. A hundred and thirty of the containers were released to a metal recycling company, and some of the waste subsequently processed, but the rest were impounded in a free-trade zone.

In the meantime, a leading local environmental NGO, the Centre for Environmental Justice (CEJ), filed a petition seeking a court order to re-export the waste containers to the UK. and prosecute those responsible for the illegal shipment. In its petition, the CEJ highlighted possible damage to environment and threats to the health of the general public, as the waste appeared to be discarded hospital waste.

Responding to Sri Lanka’s formal request, the UK.’s Environment Agency agreed to recall the dumped garbage.

“UK is committed to tackling illegal waste exports, with individuals found to be exporting incorrectly described waste can be punished with a two-year jail term and an unlimited fine,” it said in a statement.

Following the agreement, the CEJ withdrew its petition, according to its executive director, Hemantha Withanage.

“It is also important to track the movement of the waste back to the country of origin as there had been instances of such garbage being dumped elsewhere,” he told Mongabay, adding that the CEJ continues to track the ships’ movement through online vessel-tracking portals. “We should also get the numbers of the individual containers as we can drill down to that level now,” he added.

Global South as a dumping site

Jayarathne of Sri Lanka Customs and Weerasundara of CEA said they are investigating the matter and those responsible for importing the hazardous waste can also be punished under the law.

Sri Lanka is also claiming 1.6 billion Sri Lankan rupees ($8.7 million) from the UK. as compensation under the provisions of the Basel Convention.

There are several recent examples of individual countries taking waste-exporting countries to task for violating the global treaty and attempting to use countries in the Global South as their waste dumps without obtaining consent.

Malaysia sent back 150 containers of plastic waste to their countries of origin in January 2019, and the Philippines returned 1,500 metric tonnes of garbage to Canada in June 2019. Cambodia also sent back 1,600 metric tonnes of plastic waste to the US and Canada in July 2019.

Sri Lanka is pushing in the same direction, according to Samantha Gunasekara, a former deputy director of Sri Lanka Customs. A 37-year customs veteran, Gunasekara told Mongabay there have always been attempts to dump foreign waste in Sri Lanka, and that an absence of specific legislation prevented the full prosecution of the perpetrators.

“Things have improved in the legal sphere since then with new regulatory mechanisms being improved, especially under the Imports and Exports Act,” Gunasekara said. “Sri Lanka, however, should introduce domestic laws to enable the application of Basel Convention provisions to advance our interests.”

Sri Lanka signed the Basel Convention in 1992, but the enabling legislation has yet to be introduced, he added.

He also warned about the growing trend of electronic waste, or e-waste, being dumped in Global South countries.

“There are a number of schemes where developed countries send their used computers to be distributed to students in poorer countries. This looks like a generous gesture, but computers have a limited lifespan, and when the machines turn into e-waste, this happens in the developing countries and add to their e-waste records,” Gunasekara said.

Managing local hazardous waste

Notwithstanding the influx of foreign waste, Sri Lanka needs to develop its capacity to handle hazardous waste, said Ajith de Alwis, a professor of chemical and process engineering at the University of Moratuwa.

The Covid-19 pandemic has shown the importance of having an industry-based economy as it is more resilient than a service-based one. But more factories would mean the generation of more waste. Across Sri Lanka, much of this waste is incinerated, but this is a process that’s nether desirable nor sustainable, de Alwis said.

“Sri Lanka needs to secure landfill sites to effectively handle such hazardous waste,” he said.

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