These Burmese are invaded by waste from the West

For several years, the Shwepyithar district, north of the Burmese economic capital, has seen mountains of plastic accumulate, covering fields, increasing the risk of fire and threatening the health of residents.

“Previously, during the rainy season, I could pick watercress in this field for food,” a resident told AFP, speaking on condition of anonymity for security reasons.

“Because of plastic waste, we can no longer eat watercress. Instead, there is a bad smell.”

An investigation published this month by Lighthouse Reports, a collaborative editorial team, established that some of the waste dumped at this site came from Western countries.

There you can find, jumbled together, pots of Danone yogurt, packaging from the Polish cheese brand Spomlek, waste from British supermarkets from the German chain Lidl and packets of pasta from the Canadian group Unico.

Global production of plastic has more than doubled since the start of the century, to reach 460 million tonnes per year, saturating recycling capacities around the world and fueling trafficking.

The Shwepyithar waste arrived in Burma despite a law banning in principle all imports of plastic waste into the country, except packaging that is clean and ready for recycling. This measure was taken after China banned imports of used plastics in 2018, upending Western waste export channels.

Several local recycling plants acknowledged that waste they could not process was often thrown away or burned, according to Lighthouse reports.

AFP interviewed several multinationals, whose product packaging was found in Burma, to ask them how they were able to achieve this.

Lidl said it regretted this situation. “All our plastic waste is processed in the United Kingdom and Lidl has a strict policy prohibiting the shipment of waste or recyclable materials” to Asia, the group said in a statement. “We are therefore naturally disappointed by this finding and will investigate.”

– Porous border –

If we do not know the exact route of the waste arriving in Burma, the investigation suggests that Thailand is a key passage.

Nearly 7,500 tonnes of waste officially entered Burma in 2021, according to the latest United Nations data, mainly from the neighboring kingdom.

But the 2,400 kilometer border between the two countries is extremely porous and poorly guarded, leaving the field open to traffickers.

“There is no control,” notes Willie Wilson, former vice-president of Interpol’s pollution crimes working group, denouncing a real “fog”.

In July, Burmese authorities noted a difference of $1.639 billion between the value of waste that Thailand reported exporting to Burma and what the latter imported from Thailand.

This wide gap “could be caused by illegal trade”, recognized the Burmese Committee for the Eradication of Illegal Trade.

Shwepyithar residents say most of the waste illegally dumped in their neighborhood comes from recycling plants located in a nearby industrial zone.

But protesting in a country ruled with an iron fist by a junta since the 2021 military coup is risky.

A field in Shwepyithar, once used as a football field, has become a swamp of plastic waste, local residents lament.

“I know it’s not good in the long term,” a resident told AFP on condition of anonymity. “I don’t like it at all,” says a neighbor. “But there’s nothing we can do.”

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Beth Malcolm

Beth Malcolm is Scottish based Journalist at Heriot-Watt University studying French and British Sign Language. She is originally from the north west of England but is living in Edinburgh to complete her studies.