Southeast Asia, 14 July 2023 – When asked about the main challenges related to the waste trade that government officials in Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and Viet Nam experience in their work, they collectively cited around 28 issues. The difficulties were internationally and nationally specific, ranging from lack of traceability of imported waste, inconsistent data and inconsistent use of Harmonized System codes to insufficient capacity for enforcement and lack of adequate sanctions for illegal waste trade activities to the need for more clear laws, guidance and coordination between the many agencies involved.
These four countries are recipients of large volumes of waste from the European Union as well as within the ASEAN region. Since China’s ban on certain types of waste imports in 2018, they have made tremendous effort to regulate their waste trade and enforce measures that have resulted in a reduction of the flow of illegal waste. Since August 2021, they have been participating in the Unwaste initiative led by UNODC, in cooperation with the United Nations Environment Programme. The three-year project is working to support a better understanding of waste flows between Europe and Southeast Asia and facilitate cooperation among countries to thus better counter the illicit movements of waste and shift from a linear economic model to a circular one.
A major thrust of the Unwaste project has been to establish a national advisory committee or work with an existing mechanism in each of the four Southeast Asian countries to facilitate or help enrich dialogues among the many people mandated nationally to regulate, monitor and control the waste trade; stakeholders in each country agreed upon a name and role for their national advisory committee.
The project also works to instill an international cooperation perspective. In the short period of operation and although at various stages of progression, these committees or similar mechanism are impacting the response of each country to the many challenges associated with the legal and illegal movement of waste. In Malaysia, for instance, according to Aedreena Reeza Alwi, who is the Director of Industry Development Division within the Ministry of International Trade and Industry, the Unwaste project started with three agencies. “Now we are getting more participation from other relevant agencies and departments. I look forward to being more involved in this project,” she said after a recent Unwaste national consultation (March 2023). Malaysia had an existing inter-agency mechanism focused on the waste trade. Thus, the Unwaste project helped authorities there organize the national consultation to highlight their progress to date on managing its waste trade and to discuss the 2023 workplan. As well, the national consultation looked at waste trafficking trends and recent developments at the regional level so that the participants could agree on areas for collaboration or improvement to strengthen their enforcement efforts.
The consultation brought together focal points from every stage of waste trade governance—policymakers, technical departments and agencies, Customs, enforcement authorities, and prosecutors. The different challenges and responsibilities that each authority experiences were discussed, along with the overlap of roles and gaps in addressing inflows of illegal waste. According to participants, this resulted in clarity for addressing what is lacking and what needs strengthening.
Indonesia experienced a dramatic increase of waste inflows from Western countries after China inaugurated its Green Fence Policy in 2018 that banned the importation of many types of waste (known as the China ban). In response, the country put in place a task force to address cases of illegal waste imports and repatriation. The Unwaste project facilitated a National Working Group on Transboundary Movement of Waste, which met for the first time in October 2022. The diverse authorities involved in the Working Group from solid and hazardous waste and hazardous substance management, law enforcement, Customs, consumer protection and trade compliance and the Ministries of Environment and Forests, of Trade, of Foreign Affairs and of Finance will meet again in May.
Due to the increase in imported waste, Indonesia has tightened its national regulations and border management. But it struggles with cooperation with countries of origin and transit in the waste trade supply chain as well as traceability difficulties, and thus authorities experience immense complications to return waste that has been deemed unacceptable for importation. Through the National Working Group meetings and other activities, the Unwaste project is working to help Indonesia establish partnerships, exchanges and information-sharing with countries in Southeast Asia and in Europe.
In the first meeting, for example, the participants talked about the repatriation challenges of waste, including the inability to go after offenders in countries of origin; the urgent need for collaborative action among them, such as integrated supervision and inspection; and how to better manage electronic products, such as computers and smartphones, that are imported as second-hand products but are actually e-waste and can’t be reused or have only have a short remaining life time. “To ensure no violation of the national rules and regulation, cooperation needs to be strengthened. Hopefully, this meeting [of the National Working Group] will bring benefit to all stakeholders to together tackle waste trafficking and prevent Indonesia from being a dumping ground,” commented Achmad Gunawan Widjaksono, Director of Hazardous and Non-Hazardous Waste Management in the Directorate General of Solid Waste, Hazardous Waste and Hazardous Substances Management.
In Viet Nam, which has taken a strong stand against illicit and hazardous wastes and has a working group on the circular economy and extended producers’ responsibilities, the National Advisory Committee conducted its first meeting in September 2022 to discuss its Unwaste workplan and agree on ways to work together and optimize cooperation. The Committee aims to use its national meetings as well as international and regional activities to obtain advice, share good practices and recommendations to improve the country’s laws and regulations for better controlling the import and export of waste and scrap and to strengthen the sanctions for waste trafficking.
In the Committee’s first meeting, the participants analysed the technical, enforcement, policy and cooperation challenges. This included the high cost for warehouse storage and testing, the lengthy duration required for analysis of waste products, the lack of clear regulation to distinguish between waste and scrap and the lack of a robust verification mechanism; the need for Customs to inspect before shipments are allowed to unload to stop the illegal landing of waste; and how information and data are scattered among the different ministries with no previous mechanism for sharing of vital details that could result in better action pursued before shipments arrive in the ports.
The National Advisory Committee is now perceived as the channel for information updates and exchange between Vietnamese authorities and with international authorities. Hồ Đức Anh, Director of Dept 3 within the Supreme Peoples’ Procuracy, emphasized how the Committee can work on improving the laws and strengthening regulations and sanctions for waste trading.
Of the four countries prioritized by the Unwaste project, Thailand, according to various Thai authorities, lacks interest from the top level of governance regarding the management of the illicit waste trade. Thailand has national subcommittees on plastics and e-waste management, but most of their work focuses on import and export control and not protection from waste crime. And they concentrate on policymaking (such as the phasing out of single-use plastics) and rarely engage with enforcement authorities. The low level of interagency communication and data sharing and the often reshuffling of authorities further complicates the situation.
The National Advisory Committee met for the first time in June 2022 and then again in January 2023. In those meetings, the varying officials discussed the lack of concern about waste trafficking in comparison with other countries in the region; the inadequate understanding of the extent of the issue due to the lack of a centralized database on the types of waste, case studies and statistics of trafficking cases, which prosecutors require; the need for better capacity among authorities, especially to counter the constantly changing tactics of criminals, and for better tools; and how sanctions for waste trafficking offences, similar to wildlife crimes, are not severe.
“People’s awareness of the hazard of e-waste is limited,” explained Wanich Sawayo, Director of Hazardous Waste Subdivision on the challenges of e-waste management in Thailand. “We need more severe punishment because criminals are risk lovers, not risk averse,” added Teerat Limpayaraya, a prosecutor in the Attorney General’s Office.
The National Advisory Committee is expected to make recommendations on adequate cooperation mechanisms between regulatory agencies and criminal justice institutions as well as policies on the import and export of waste and its management and what reforms or new strategies should be put in place. It will also help streamline communication for improved coordination among agencies through the definition of roles and responsibilities.
These four countries are on the front-lines of waste trafficking, and their efforts to tackle the problem is laudable. While there are some differences, the four countries have similar challenges. And their experiences echo conversations in other parts of the world: waste trafficking is still a high-profit, low-risk crime; regulatory, implementation and enforcement gaps are still present; data sharing is needed; and more capacity-building is needed. Also imperative is greater national, regional and international cooperation because the biggest challenge to enforcement around the world is the reality that when one country tightens its regulations and enforcement, waste does not stop flowing but merely finds a new destination.
The Unwaste project is implemented by the UNODC Regional Office for Southeast Asia and the Pacific, in cooperation with the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and with the support of the United Nations Institute for Training and research (UNITAR), and benefits from the financial support of the European Union.