Story by Tewarit Maneechai, Sicha Rungrojtanakul, and Kannikar Petchkaew
Additional reporting by Allegra Mendelson, Rachel Moon, Naw Betty Han, Maung Lay, Mia Rabson, Charlotte Alfred, Eva Constantaras, Nalinee Maleeyakul, Mariusz Sepioło
When home becomes a waste dump
“Suddenly three months ago, they started dumping waste in front of my house right where it used to be an empty lot. It used to be a municipal park.”
Aye Aye Than, a 60-year-old housewife, one of the villagers living near the rubbish dump in Shwe Pyi Thar north of Yangon, revealed to Frontier.
Trash lines the walkways in front of people's homes in Ward 27.
Photo by Mai Thomas. September 2023
Shwe Pyi Thar is an industrial town where both domestic and international investors have built a scattering of factories producing various consumer goods.
“Shwe Pyi Thar” means golden colour and enjoyment, but in fact the living conditions of the villagers are not like that. A large amount of waste from factories is dumped in the community. Almost all of the residential area is surrounded by piles of plastic waste, some as high as a 1-storey house. Remarkably for a Buddhist community, a waste mountain overshadows the temple which is the spiritual centre of the community.
An informal trash dump in front of a Dhamma centre in Ward 9. (Supplied)
The people of Alo Taw Pyae village have to face the same problem. In scorching weather there is a risk that one day the waste will catch fire. The villagers had to build their houses on stilts since the rubbish clogs the waterways, causing frequent flooding.
“Right where there’s that large pile of rubbish used to be a road. That other pile used to be a public field. They’re not places to dump rubbish at all.”
Aye Mi, a housewife who has lived here since 2018, said that although her hut was not near the rubbish dumps, it was still located on top of waste water.
Children wade through trash-filled water in Ward 27.
Despite their anger, they are too scared to speak up. The Myanmar coup in 2021 destroyed democratic good governance mechanisms. The Burmese dictatorship arrests anyone they think is against peace, order and security. Myanmar is enveloped in fear.
Apart from local waste, Frontier discovered waste from foreign countries such as the United Kingdom, Poland and Canada under the trademarks Lidl, Unico, Foremost, Kasztelan, Spomlek and Oikos.
Frontier also reported that most of the international waste found in Shwe Pyi Thar is packaging waste from Lidl stores in the United Kingdom. Lidl is a German supermarket with branches all over Europe which has announced a strict environmental policy.
Lidl UK explains that all the plastic waste of the company is managed domestically, and the company itself has a strict policy of not exporting waste to any Asian country.
In addition, in Shwe Pyi Thar, packaging tape from Lidl Poland was found. Lidl Poland’s corporate communication representative explained that the company outsources its waste management, and they have specified in the contract that their packaging must be recycled within Europe.
Carlsberg Polska, producer of Kasztelan beer, explains that there is no export of waste outside Poland nor export of their products to Myanmar.
Reporters contacted Unico and Foremost for their comments but did not receive a response.
Danone North America, producer of Oikos yogurt, also did not provide a response. Danone is one of the world’s leading plastic producers and is currently facing charges on offences related to pollution in France.
Foreign plastic waste lines the top of a mound of plastic waste in Ward 27.
A loophole in the Basel Convention
In 2022, the Basel Action Network, which monitors the Basel Convention, especially the export of plastic waste to countries outside the OECD, together with Ecological Alert and Recovery-Thailand (EARTH), a Thai environmental NGO, monitored freight containers coming into Thailand suspected of containing plastic waste or hazardous plastic, which may be a violation of this Convention.
After alerting Thailand’s Pollution Control Department, the team then collaborated with officers from the Department to examine 2 suspect shipping containers. One of the suspect containers was found to contain normal plastic, not plastic waste, while the other container could not be examined since it was in transit to Myanmar.
“It was then that we started to observe the possibility that Thailand was serving as a transit route for plastic waste to neighbouring countries,” a researcher who participated in the check said.
Transiting plastic waste for recycling under the Basel Convention can be carried out under the 2017 Customs Act, Chapter 4 Part 1. Consent for transit and transshipment does not need to be requested in advance from the Industrial Works Department, so most transit shipments are marked as transit of plastic scrap for recycling.
As for the authority to examine transit goods, an announcement of the Department of Customs stipulates that customs officials are able to examine transit goods without the need for a search warrant in 4 cases: there is reason to believe that the goods are intended for use in terrorism or are related to terrorism; the goods may affect national security and peace and international safety; the declared origins are false; and the goods are illegal according to transit or transshipment laws.
Officials examining the suspect containers in such cases must be from the Department of Customs, although the Pollution Control Department is Thailand’s official representative in enforcing the Basel convention (Basel Convention Competent Authority (CA)) together with the Industrial Works Department.
Meanwhile Somphong,* a Customs official, said that in practice, all transit goods in the form of freight containers are checked only for whether the documents on the doors are properly attached, to confirm that the goods are intact and have not been tampered with. Checking the contents of the containers is the responsibility of the importing country or the country of destination.
The Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal is an international convention which aims to reduce the movement of hazardous waste from one state to another, and to prevent the transportation of hazardous waste from a developed country to a developing country.
However, it was found that the Convention was not able to end attempts to force waste on many undeveloped countries. Many countries such as the US have not ratified the Convention. There have been reports in the western media that exports of plastic waste from America were spread to poor and developing countries.
In the case of Thailand, which has ratified the Basel Convention, the shipping of contaminated and possibly hazardous plastic waste through Thailand requires the country of origin to seek prior consent from the Industrial Works Department. However, in practice there is a loophole which states that if the Industrial Works Department does not respond within 60 days, it is considered tacit consent. That country is then able to transit the waste through Thailand to the destination country.
A source from within the Thai group of officials who work under the Basel Convention stated that the Convention controls only hazardous waste. Recently, plastic waste was included at the discretion of each country to categorise what plastic waste is. There are no agreed specifications under the Convention. There are not many import declarations of plastic pieces suspected to be plastic waste. “It is in the tens, not the hundreds, each year” and Thailand carries out an inspection every time there is a declaration from the country of origin.
“For example, once a shipping container was suspected to contain plastic waste from Italy. We checked the cargo and found that it was plastic pieces to be used as raw materials in the recycling industry, not waste. Up to the present we have yet to discover plastic waste, but we are happy to check every time we are notified.”
The news source explained that there were no agreed specifications under the Basel Convention as to what is to be categorised as plastic waste, resulting in different interpretations by each country. Thailand is in the midst of drafting clear specifications on what the features and components of plastic waste are, and what type of plastic is to be considered plastic waste. It is expected to be completed within this year. The specifications will from then on be enforced with all shipments entering Thailand.
How is Thailand used as a transit route
The plastic waste that Frontier found is simply the tip of the iceberg. According to UN Comtrade data, from 2017 to 2022, plastic waste under the tariff code HS 3915 worth many millions of dollars was sent from other countries to Myanmar, most of which entered from Thailand. Other countries such as the United States of America, Canada, Poland, Spain, Australia and the United Kingdom, as well as other Asian countries, also sent some, but compared to Thailand, in significantly smaller amounts.
On 21 Feb 2023, the Cabinet passed a resolution banning the import of plastic waste from 31 Dec 2024 onwards to lessen the environmental impact and to solve the problem of the falling cost of plastic scrap in the country, and to prevent Thailand from becoming a dump for waste from other countries.
GreenNews reported the words of Penchom Saetang, Director of Ecological Alert and Recovery-Thailand (EARTH), which has monitored the problem of toxic waste for more than 10 years, who said that this measure is considered to be another key step in the success of the people’s sector, but there are still things they need to keep an eye on, such as smuggling, false declarations or incorrect HS Code declarations, which the people’s sector cannot check.
Looking back to 2018, the Chinese government announced a ban on imports of waste from other countries after discovering that waste was overwhelming the country. This resulted in a huge amount of waste changing its target destination to many countries in the Southeast Asian region, including Thailand. In 2018, the government made the waste problem a national issue and has been trying to solve the problem ever since, but still cannot totally prevent waste imports.
In the period of 2023-2024, Thailand is still in a lenient phase. Plastic waste imports from other countries is limited to use as raw material for the 14 industrial factories which have already received prior permission in duty-free zones for production for export only. Then at the end of 2024, there will be no further imports of plastic waste from other countries.
Investigations revealed that if someone wants to export plastic waste from Thailand to Myanmar, there are 2 possible methods:
- Through “certain companies” which hold permits to import plastic waste as raw materials in duty-free areas for production for export, and have the rights to hold these raw materials in their possession for 2 years
- By transportation through Thailand as “transit goods” where in practice, the freight containers will not be opened until they reach the destination country.
Loopholes through certain companies
Plastic scrap imported to duty-free zones as raw materials for production must be exported from the kingdom in the form of finished products, but in practice, there is a loophole.
“Sometimes we don’t need to produce anything., We just sort it and then export it.”
Paul,* a director of one of the companies holding a permit, said in an interview that plastic waste that was not used to produce new goods was transferred to Myanmar through Mae Sot.
Foreign waste in shipping containers will arrive in Thailand at Laem Chabang Port, and then be loaded onto a vehicle trailer to be transported through Thailand into Myanmar.
Paul said that the company where he works exports both recycled plastic waste and waste that has only been sorted to many countries, including China, Vietnam, Malaysia and Hong Kong. In the case of Myanmar, the amount was not much compared to other countries at around 10-12 containers per month, while in the past it reached around 30-40 containers.
The reason they exported less was not clearly explained, but most likely it is due to unrest at the border.
Meanwhile Ploychai,* an employee of a logistics company in Mae Sot, said that her company arranged transit documents for all kinds of goods, including plastic scrap. Even contaminated plastic waste can be exported from Thailand into Myanmar. “It depends on whether you can clear it with Myanmar or not,” which is up to the client. Her company is only responsible for dealing with the documents. The fee for processing documents for transporting goods across the bridge from Thailand to Myanmar is 5,000 baht per trailer, which usually consists of 2 containers.
Thong,* a logistics company employee in Samut Prakan, revealed that normally his company transports plastic scrap in transit to Myanmar, Lao PDR and Cambodia. In cases where the client wishes to transport goods to Myanmar, only a Myanmar permit is required. However, the client must send the detailed codes for the goods to the company through email only, since “many clients tell us the code, but some get round it.”
A recycle factory in Myawaddy
(Photo by Wanna Taemthong, September 2023)
Plastic waste found in a recycling facility in Myawaddy
(Photo by Wanna Taemthong, September 2023)
From the pictures above, Prachatai asked 3 experts about the possibility that plastic waste is compressed then imported in shipping containers.
All 3 stated that there is a possibility but it cannot be confirmed that the waste is from another country, because domestic waste can be compressed in the same way to save space in transportation. The evidence that will show that it is imported waste is the product labels.
A loophole from transit goods
Prachatai talked to people in logistics circles and a customs official who does not wish to be named, and found that there is a possibility that foreign plastic waste found in Myanmar was transited through Thailand by exploiting the lack of customs inspections and corruption during transportation.
Chaiwat,* who has driven trucks across the border for more than 10 years, confirmed that there is both import and export of waste between Thailand and Myanmar. He has seen compressed plastic and compressed paper placed in shipping containers. Some came by boat, or otherwise by truck.
The export of goods can be carried out through 2 channels; the main route is the Second Thai–Myanmar Friendship Bridge and the secondary route is by barge, depending on how the client on the Myanmar side would like to receive the goods. If it is a shipping container, the receiver is often Chinese, so he normally drives across the bridge.
These containers are transported along land routes in Thailand as “transit goods” that will not be opened until they reach the destination.
One of the few people who get to see the contents of the containers is the driver who crosses the border into Myanmar. He once drove a shipping container from Laem Chabang Port to a Chinese industrial estate in Myanmar. The manifest declared the contents as furniture, but once they reached the destination and the container was opened, it turned out that the contents were 4-5 sheets of plywood and the rest was beer and fruit juice in glass containers, all from China.
In addition, some types of shipping containers are not opened at all even when they are unloaded. The officials will carry the shipping container away, then bring an empty container for the driver to take back instead.
“Here, money can solve everything.”
Chaiwat* then told us about “cleared containers” which is a term known in logistics circles that refers to containers which are exempt from examinations by the Customs Department. Once they arrive at the border station, there will be no inspection stop or x-ray before crossing the border, nor do they need to avoid the bridge by using a barge instead. Once he sees that the inspection measures are lax, he can guess that they were containers that “have been cleared.”
“Once we arrive, some places unload the containers, then give us empty containers to return to Laem (Chabang). The drivers won’t see the contents inside.”
Another confirmation was from Kai,* a trailer-truck driver crossing the Thailand-Myanmar border. He stated that once they cross the border to Myanmar, they have to keep some spare money to pay bribes. After the coup in 2021, the Karen BGF soldiers collected significantly more from trucks. Before, they would collect 10-20 baht, but now they collect 100 baht.
“When they say if you don’t have a thousand, then don’t come – it’s true. If you don’t have that much money, it will be difficult because you give them 10 and they’ll want 100. If we don’t have it, there will be problems.”
Still from a TikTok video of a cross-border truck driver The owner of the clip confirms that the official is the picture is a BGF soldier extorting money from the driver of the truck in front of him
Exposure of techniques to escape getting checked
“If documents clearly state that they are prohibited goods or illegal goods, there’s no way it can pass the border. There has to be forgery of documents right from the start.”
Sirichai,* an employee in the logistics department of a private company, revealed that normally import documents consists of 3 pieces with corresponding information:
- Invoice: indicates goods, price, amount
- Packing list: indicates weight, width, length, height and type of container
- B/L: Bill of Lading
But the main documents that Customs will use to check on imports-exports are the “declarations” for both imports and exports. Businesses have to report them to Customs. The content is referenced from the documents listed above.
The easiest way to make a false declaration is to forge the 3 documents right from the start by changing the description of goods so as not to be at risk of getting examined.
In the shipping documents, there will be 2 spaces for the shipper (exporter) and consignee (importer) specifying the name and address of the companies. The transportation company may or may not be in the know, as they are only acting as middlemen hired to transport the goods.
“So if there is a false export declaration, the shipper (exporter) is the one who forges the documents from the start. The goods are actually A, but they say it’s B to avoid customs, then make the rest of the documents correspond. Customs check by documents, so they wouldn’t know.”
In the case of foreign plastic waste transported to Myanmar through Thailand, Sirichai confirms that there is a high possibility that the method of false declarations is deployed to transit the goods by benefitting from the fact that Thai Customs do not examine the contents. It may also be related to the use of connections.
Meanwhile, Wirayut, a logistics employee from another company, confirms that there is high possibility that the 3915 shipping containers containing plastic scrap stuck in Customs at large ports are “cleared containers” where the origin and destination couldn’t really be “cleared”.
False declarations are a frequently found with imports, either falsely declaring the value in order to pay less tax or intentionally declaring the goods to be something else to avoid tax.
Measures to ban the import of plastic waste into Thailand are still not enough
“HS 3915 waste is imported the most. Just banning it is undoubtedly a way to close a large loophole for importing it, but probably not the most complete solution.”
Punyathorn Jeungsmarn, Information and Communications Officer at EARTH, talked about the policy to ban the import of plastic waste in 2025 as being a good sign, but still not enough. The government should provide supplementary measures in monitoring, preventing and controlling the import of plastic waste as well. For example, expanding the scope of control to all HS codes to check if there is a chance that plastic waste is being imported under other HS codes or not.
Back in 2018, the people’s sector had started to protest the import of plastic waste, because they saw that the country was the recipient of large amounts. As time passed, more evidence gradually appeared that Thailand is both an exporter and transit country.
In June 2023, Varawut Silpa-archa, then Minister of Natural Resources and Environment, confirmed to Prachatai that the ban of plastic scrap imports in 2025 does not include imports for transit.
“There should be a written law prohibiting both importing and transiting.”
Punyathorn talked about his suggestion to the Thai government that we have to prevent ourselves from becoming a place which plastic waste passes to other countries. In one respect, Thailand is a part of spreading the pollution problem.
“In theory, our law may be able to stop transit, but if the effectiveness of law enforcement is still like this, it is more worrisome. There will still be grey businesses coming in.”
Petch Manopawitr, Secretary-General of the Green World Foundation and a conservation scientist, talked about plastic waste management measures which became lax along with the decline in public interest.
After 2018 when the government declared the problem of plastic waste as a national issue, a group of entrepreneurs in the plastic supply chain made efforts to negotiate with the government to extend the time for importing plastic waste, claiming that the domestic recycling industry lacked raw materials.
The mass media and the civil society sector made the observation that the import of plastic waste may decrease, but other types of waste will replace them, such as paper waste, in order to maintain support for the recycling business.
“You can already see that there are ample raw materials in the country. The problem isn’t that there are no raw materials, the problem is rather the separation.”
Petch says that the policy to ban plastic waste imports is a good thing, but having a law to support circular economy will most likely allow us to see the bigger picture on how to effectively manage domestic waste. What we want to see more is the participation of the private sector, especially the plastic recycling industry, in joint investments or doing something concrete. Effective waste separation needs to be enforced.
Throughout the 6 months of investigations, Prachatai contacted the Customs Department many times for their comments and opinions but did not receive a response.
*Aliases are used to protect the sources of information
The production of this investigation was supported by a grant from the Investigative Journalism for Europe (IJ4EU) fund.