Indonesia vows to return unwanted waste back to US. It ends up in other Asian countries

Source: The Jakarta Post

When hazardous waste was imported from several countries to Indonesia between May and August this year, Indonesian authorities pledged to send it all back to show that the government was committed to removing all unwanted materials from the country.

According to data released by the Indonesian customs and excise office in September, authorities have sent back at least 331 containers filled with contaminated non-hazardous waste to numerous countries, including the United States.

The non-hazardous waste, mostly comprising clean scrap paper, was intended to be used by paper recycling companies in Indonesia. However, it was contaminated with hazardous waste, such as diapers and plastic, which could not be processed by industries and eventually ended up as garbage in landfills.

A provision on returning imported hazardous waste to their countries of origin is stipulated in the Basel Convention, an international treaty that controls the movement of hazardous waste between countries. Indonesia is among the countries that ratified the convention.

However, it was not until recently that Indonesian authorities were suspected of defying their commitment to the Basel Convention, as a report issued by environmental groups alleged that they sent waste to other Asian countries instead of returning the materials to their countries of origin.

Indonesian environmental group Nexus3 and global waste trade watchdog Basel Action Network probed 70 waste containers consisting waste that were sent back to their countries of origin. Fifty-eight of the containers came from the United States.

The report from the probe, issued on Monday, shows that 38 of the containers sent back to the United States did not reach its final destination and was diverted to other countries instead.

"After promising that the illegal plastic waste imports would be returned to their countries of origin, our [Indonesian] officials have instead engaged in a global waste shell game, victimizing more countries with the unwanted, illegal and contaminated shipments," said Yuyun Ismawati of Nexus3 in a statement.

Of the 58 containers meant to be sent back to the US, 38 of them were diverted to India, BAN found. Meanwhile, three containers were sent to South Korea and one container each went to Thailand, Vietnam, Mexico, the Netherlands and Canada. Only 12 containers were returned to the US.

"It is an international norm that illegal waste exports are the responsibility of the state of export, in this case the United States, and the exporting state has the duty to ‘re-import’ the waste," BAN executive director Jim Puckett said.

Yuyun said it was not known whether the Indonesian government had sent a notification of waste return to its US counterpart, as required by the Basel Convention. According to the convention, the state exporting hazardous waste should notify authorities in the importing countries regarding the “proposed trans-boundary movement of [the] waste.”

“If there’s no prior notification, we suspect Indonesian authorities did not intend to return the waste to the US,” Yuyun said.

Some containers arriving in the Indian port were later transported by land to their final location, the Kanpur Concor container freight station in Uttar Pradesh, on Sept. 14. In the instance that a facility in India did not have proper facilities to manage the waste, the watchdogs said it was likely it would be burned, creating highly toxic smoke and fumes.

According to the field observations of Nexus3 and East Java-based environmental group Ecoton earlier this year, 25 to 40 percent of imported waste in Greater Jakarta and East Java ends up in open fields or is burned rather than recycled.

Bangun village in Mojokerto, East Java, has long been plagued by imported waste issues, with local scavengers often finding plastic packaging from Australia and the UK, among other countries. They have also found ripped banknotes of various currencies, such as the US dollar, the British pound and the euro.

Waste shipped to the village reportedly comes from a paper recycling company in the neighboring regency of Pasuruan. A truckload of waste costs Rp 500,000 (US$35.65).

Responding to the report, Finance Ministry customs and excise office spokesperson Deni Surjantoro said the office had gone through the proper procedure prior to sending the waste containers to their countries of origin.

“We won’t be able to release them for ‘re-export’ unless the document states the containers are going to the United States. At that time, the document stated that the waste containers were sent back to the US,” Deni told The Jakarta Post on Monday.

He added his office would coordinate with the Environment and Forestry Ministry to follow up on the finding.

Meanwhile, the ministry’s director general of waste and hazardous and toxic material management, Rosa Vivien Ratnawati, told the Post briefly on Tuesday that her office “will talk about the matter with the customs and excise office as well as the foreign ministry first”.