Following the recent election, it is clear that many Canadians were eager to rid themselves of the stench that was Stephen Harper’s Conservatives. Harper led the country for almost 10 years that summarily ended in an overwhelming ‘anyone but Harper’ sentiment. While Canadians have been able to sweep Harper aside, he left a legacy that will not be so easily moved. Trudeau has his work cut out for him with many major files piling up on his desk. His early work in office will surely be scrutinised against both his predecessor and – unfortunately – against his father. One festering issue that has been lingering in the Philippines for over two years now could be a good yard stick by which to measure the differences in governing to come from Trudeau.

Since June 2013, 50 shipping containers, or 2,500 tons of waste, designated as ‘plastic for recycling’ has been sitting in the Philippines. This shouldn’t be surprising. The Philippines has a strong waste and recycling infrastructure making it a global trash attraction. At this point, you’re probably sifting for the issue.

Here’s the wrinkle:

Inside these 50 containers is not ‘plastic for recycling’ (points for you if you saw that coming). What lies inside these containers is 2,500 tons of waste such as rotting food and used adult diapers. This is potentially a violation of international law but, more relevantly, an affront to (re-emerging) Canadian values surrounding the environment and foreign relations. While officials in the Philippines have reiterated the waste is not hazardous, they have upped their stance that the waste is a violation of domestic law and, further, Canada’s obligations under the 1992 Basel Convention governing the transboundary movement of hazardous waste that both states are a party to.

Since the incident occurred, both countries have refused to take responsibility for the waste originating from an Ontario based company and shipped out of Vancouver. To answer your question… yes, it would have been easier and cheaper to simply dispose of the waste domestically. However, it is not uncommon for waste to be shipped and mislabelled in this manner.

Mislabelling of waste has become a preferred method of businesses who seek to avoid the high cost of waste disposal and organised criminals who profit from the quagmire that is international law and regulatory safe havens. There is no clear number on the amount of waste shipped this way, but one would imagine that these containers are a small sample. Interpol has identified waste pollution crimes as a significant global issue and Eurojust has identified the illegal movement of waste as part of a USD 30-40 billion per year environmental crimes industry.

Government officials in Manila from the Department of Foreign Affairs and other agencies have affirmed the need to engage Canada in bilateral talks as recently as October 1st 2015.  This is in light of strong domestic pressure that has been laid on the Philippines government in the form of protests from residents who were able to successfully prevent a large portion of the Canadian waste being put in a sanitary landfill.

While protests in the Philippines have been successful in halting the movement of the waste, thus far the diplomatic channel has been producing little in the way of results. The Canadian Government has consistently downplayed this as a ‘private commercial matter.’ With growing domestic concern within the Philippines, pressure from within the House of Representatives in the Asian nation has been amplified as House of Representative member exclaimed: “My motherland is not a (sic) garbage bin of Canada.”

Should officials in Manila feel optimistic about a change of government in Canada?

Trudeau, admittedly, has more pressing, and publically visible, remnants of the Harper government of which to dispose. Not to mention his foreign policy agenda is hefty with his plans around trade, the climate, ISIL, and Syrian refugees weighing him down. However, Trudeau has vowed to bring back Canada’s ‘compassionate and constructive voice’ in foreign affairs. One would certainly posit that a gesture of good will to the people of the Philippines might go a long way to restore such a voice in Canadian foreign affairs and be a strong signal to the changing tide. A diplomatic fix involving Canada picking up the tab to bring this waste home would be a drop in the ocean compared to planned Liberal spending, and go a long way to restore Canada’s compassionate voice.

With the announcement of Trudeau’s cabinet coming in two days, I am sure officials in Manila will be eager to reach out to the new Foreign Affairs minister.

This is certainly a space where the actions of Trudeau and his cabinet will be telling given that few in Canada are really watching. This observer certainly hopes he does not turn his nose up at the opportunity.

Nathan Seef has a Masters of International Criminology from the University of Sheffield, UK. He specialises in transnational organised crime and environmental harms. He has given several guest lectures on green criminology and is passionate for finding ways to reduce the negative impacts of mass production. He has strong interests in issues of global governance, international law, and international affairs. He is currently an Associate Editor for the Freedom Observatory and iAffairs Canada.


This is a cross-post originally published on the Freedom Observatory

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