“The first thing we saw was the trash. So much trash.” He shook his head. “When the water receded, we saw the bodies.” Our tour guide, a man whose name I no longer remember, told me during a trip to Ormoc back in the summer of 2016, roughly three years after Typhoon Haiyan struck the city.
Ormoc is one of the cities in Leyte, Philippines that were devastated by the super typhoon in 2013. Though national and foreign aid poured into Leyte, it was largely focused on Tacloban City where local and international journalists directed most of their airtime. The coverage was deserved given that Tacloban was rendered inaccessible in the first few days of Haiyan’s aftermath. But it left everyone else largely unseen and unheard.
“The river was filled with corpses. They had to bury them in a mass grave,” he continued as we drove along the length of the river. “Since that happened, you can hear the children cry every time it rains.”
I’m writing this from memory and as much as memory can be fallible, this is one of the few conversations that have stuck with me for years. I did some digging and it turns out that the death toll for Haiyan in the Philippines reached over 5,000.
That’s just counting the bodies found within two weeks of the storm and while I never thought to ask exactly where the mass grave he was talking about was located, too shocked by the mental image of a river of corpses, one mass grave at the Holy Cross Memorial Gardens in Tacloban held what remained of 2,273 lives.
Though we think of storms as forces of nature (which they are) this thinking often comes with the implication that natural disasters are completely unavoidable. That they somehow come into existence without any input from human failure even with studies showing that these natural disasters are unnaturally intensified by climate change.
The long-time residents of the apartment building I used to live in at Muntinlupa City, a short drive from the capital of Manila, would agree. After Haiyan, areas of the city marinated in floodwater and trash that refused to wash back to sea for months. It was strange, they said, in the rare event that it did flood, it would usually go away in a few days.
I left Muntinlupa years ago. These days, I live in a well-developed suburban area flanked by gorgeous beaches and breathtaking mountains. You can leave after lunch, take a dip in azure waters, and be back before dinner is served. When you’re living near paradise, you learn to take advantage of it.
One weekend, I rented a boat, got some friends together, and went island hopping two hours away from home. A welcome change of pace from sitting in front of my computer all day. Here, the deep blue water was real water, not a desktop wallpaper. The water was only interrupted by islands of sandstone, a yacht, and a single k-cup riding the rise and fall of strong waves that only occur this far into sea.
A k-cup. In the middle of the ocean.
When I asked one of the fishermen with us later that day about whether that’s normal, he could only sigh and say it was getting more frequent.
Alarmingly so. Each year, anywhere between 1.15 to 2.41 million tonnes of plastic waste enter the world’s oceans. Some of those end up in the infamous Great Pacific Garbage Patch while the rest washes up on the shores of countries all around the globe.
Take a look at a list of the world’s most polluted countries and you’ll find that most of the nations listed on the higher end of the scale are poorer, developing nations like Bangladesh, Vietnam, Ghana, and the Philippines. Meanwhile, richer countries like the United States, Canada and, Japan count for some of the least polluted countries in the world.
On the surface, it seems like a no-brainer that poorer nations are more polluted due to the lack of proper sanitation and recycling infrastructure. And it’s true: a lot of these poorer countries don’t have systems in place for dealing with plastic waste. But here’s the thing: they aren’t dealing with only their plastic waste.
Before trash makes it into the sea, it has to go downstream of a river. Third-world rivers like the Ganges in India are some of the most polluted in the world, but upstream is a slew of trash flowing out of richer countries that outsource the repercussions of pollution to poorer nations.
The United States is one of them. As one of the leading producers of plastic garbage, the U.S. produces the most plastic waste per capita in the world. The U.S. produces over 200 pounds of plastic waste per person each year. And though Japan holds a reputation for being unbelievably clean and beautiful, the country churns out 9.4 million tonnes of plastic waste every year.
Of that plastic, 67% is burned, 8% is dumped in a landfill, and 12% is exported to countries in the global south. Malaysia bore the brunt of the 821 thousand metric tons of garbage that Japan sent out in 2020. The Southeast Asian nation is the number one destination for Japanese waste.
It wasn’t always like this. Before 2020, China handled most of the developed world’s waste, particularly plastic waste that came from the U.S. If you were wondering where your recycling goes after you chuck it in a recycling bin, there’s your answer.
China used to be the biggest importer of American waste. China would send goods over to the U.S. and the U.S. sent China its trash which the factory of the world then used to produce more goods that it could send back to the U.S. That is, until China decided it no longer wanted to be America’s dumpster.
In mid-2018, China announced that it would no longer be accepting plastic waste from the U.S., even the ones it claims can still be recycled. Last year, all of the waste imports stopped. This has led to a recycling crisis in the U.S. that showed Americans the full extent of the country’s recycling woes. Without China acting as a rug to literally sweep U.S. trash under, the American recycling system teetered on collapse.
Recycling facilities in the U.S. experienced a spike in operation costs that completely turned the recycling system on its head. Bakersfield, California used to make $65 a ton off of its recyclable waste. By 2018, they were paying $25 a ton to get someone to take the trash out of their hands. With China’s ban on trash importation, those prices only kept going up.
Rising costs for recycling led U.S. cities to put a stop to their recycling efforts. You’d think that with the cost of raw materials and labor, it would be easier to just clean old plastic and reuse those. But if that were the case, corporations would have been incentivized to do it themselves instead of putting the responsibility on weak recycling infrastructure. But it isn’t. It’s actually cheaper to produce new plastic than go through the trouble of recycling old plastic materials.
It’s not all doom and gloom, though. The U.S. now has a national strategy for dealing with the country’s plastic.
But what about the countries where first-world trash is now going?
The halt on Chinese trash importation doesn’t mean first-world countries have stopped exporting their trash. That trash now goes to poorer, even more ill-equipped third world countries whose next to non-existent trash management systems now struggle to grapple with the sheer volume of local and foreign waste.
Of course, this led to pushback from Southeast Asian nations. Yeo Bee Yin, Malaysia’s Environment Minister, stated, “Malaysia will not be a dumping ground to the world. We will fight back. Even though we are a small country, we cannot be bullied by developed countries.”
The Philippines’ President Rodrigo Duterte had shaper words for Canada after the discovery of 2,400 tonnes of illegally imported Canadian trash.
“I cannot understand why they’re making us a dump site,” Duterte said, joking about how Canada should hold a reception for its garbage’s return. “Eat it, if you want to.”
Trash has turned political, but while world leaders squabble over who should handle the developed world’s trash in a twisted game of hot potato, it’s fishermen and poor communities in coastal areas of Southeast Asia that suffer the most from the effects of forces far outside their control.
Our island hopping trip ended by sunset. On the way back, I poked my head out from under the roof of the boat, letting the ocean spray hit my face. In that brief moment, it was an unspoiled paradise where work, politics, and climate change seemed to exist a world away.
When I got off the boat with my backpack, I looked back to take a photo of our boat with the sun setting behind it, the color of freshly cooked egg yolk.
And I see it. The small wrapper of fish crackers stuck to the side of the boat.