The Philippines has followed through on its threat to send 1,500 tonnes of illegally dumped rubbish back on a boat to Canada, ending a six-year dispute between the two countries.
Wilma Eisma, administrator of Subic Bay freeport, confirmed that the 69 containers of garbage had been loaded overnight on the container ship M/V Bavaria, which left on a 20-day journey to the Canadian port city of Vancouver, via Taiwan.
Eisma said the the move ended a “sordid chapter in our history”.
The dispatch of the Canadian rubbish, which had been sitting in two Philippine ports since 2013 and 2014 while Canada refused to acknowledge the issue, was a cause for celebration in the Philippines.
Environmental activists, including those from Greenpeace and EcoWaste Coalition, sailed around Subic Bay on a small boat carrying with a streamer reading, “Philippines: not a garbage dumping ground!” while foreign secretary Teodoro Locsin posted on Twitter: “Baaaaaaaaa bye, as we say it,” alongside images of the vessel leaving.
Canada’s environment minister Catherine McKenna welcomed the news of the waste being returned, telling reporters on Thursday: “We committed with the Philippines and we’re working closely with them.”
The rubbish has been a source of contention between the two nations for years, after it was discovered the containers had been brought in falsely declared as recyclable plastic when it was in fact electrical and rotting household waste. However, in recent months the issue had escalated into a full-blown diplomatic dispute.
The Philippines won a legal case last year which ruled Canada had to take responsibility for the waste, but no further action was taken by the Canadian government. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte then took a very personal interest in the saga, demanding that Canada take back the waste or vowing to have it towed and dumped in Canadian waters.
The Philippine government then recalled its ambassador and consuls in Canada over Ottawa’s failure to comply with a 15 May deadline to take back the waste.
The relationship between Duterte and Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau was already tense due to Trudeau’s vocal criticism of Duterte’s violent crackdown on illegal drugs, which has left thousands dead.
Last week McKenna said the government had awarded a contract to French shipping giant Bollore Logistics Canada, calling for the return of the containers by the end of June.
But presidential spokesman Salvador Panelo rejected the plan, saying the Duterte administration would look for a private shipping company to transport the garbage sooner and would shoulder the costs themselves.
“If Canada will not accept their trash, we will leave the same within its territorial waters,” Panelo said. “The president’s stance is as principled as it is uncompromising: The Philippines as an independent sovereign nation must not be treated as trash by other foreign nations.”
The Philippines is among a growing number of south-east Asian nations that have protested being treated like dumpsites by wealthier countries. China banned the import of plastic waste in 2018, causing it to be diverted to other south-east Asian nations, with over 50% of plastic waste from the US now ending up in Malaysia.
The Malaysian prime minister, Mahathir Mohamad, has criticised the practice of wealthier countries such as the UK, United States, Canada and Japan sending their non-recyclable waste to poorer countries, and his government has become the latest to start sending the rubbish back.
On Tuesday, Malaysian environment minister Yeo Bee Yin said that Malaysia had already sent back five containers of illegal waste from Spain and would be returning 3,000 tonnes of illegally imported plastic waste from the UK, the US, Australia, Japan, France and Canada.
The problem continues to escalate however. On Friday, Malaysian customs said there were 265 containers of abandoned plastic waste, illegally imported from from Hong Kong, Canada, Belgium, Germany and the US, sitting in a port in Penang.