OTTAWA — On the northern fringe of Myanmar's largest city is a township of nearly 300,000 people with a growing industrial base in textiles, consumer goods and food products.
But north of Yangon in Shwepyithar, whose name in English means "golden and pleasant," nothing is growing faster than garbage.
And a lot of it isn't even theirs.
Piled up on every block are great big mounds of tattered bags, discarded plastic bottles and packaging turned grey from weather and dirt.
Mountains of plastic waste, sometimes as tall as single-storey houses, are rotting in the streets. People have to wind their way around the piles to get to temples and community centres.
The stench seeps into homes, and mothers instruct their children not to play in the trash. The hot weather dries out the garbage, making every road at risk of catching fire.
In Myanmar, where citizens have once again been under military rule since a 2021 coup, the locals are terrified to speak out.
Frontier Myanmar, an English-language magazine published in Yangon, visited Shwepyithar multiple times between January and June. Reporters Allegra Mendelson and Rachel Moon documented the trash problem, sharing their observations and images with The Canadian Press.
They also interviewed local residents, as well as owners and employees of plastic-recycling factories, about its impact. The Canadian Press agreed not to identify any of them by name out of concern that they would face retaliation by authorities in Myanmar.
"If I create a problem with the governing body, the army will come and arrest me," said a 55-year-old father whose home is one of those facing a mound of trash.
"I don't like it, but I am not comfortable talking about what I don't like. At my age, I can no longer bear being beaten or tortured."
While the nearby factories are believed to be responsible for some of the waste, there is no doubt, upon closer inspection, that much of it has come in from overseas.
While much of the trash has already degraded beyond recognition, clearly visible in the debris are brands from Europe and North America, including several items easily identified as originating in Canada.
Most of it appears to be post-consumer waste — the kind that Canadians likely tossed into a blue bin in their kitchen with no clue it would end up on the top of a trash heap 11,000 kilometres away.
On the top of one pile, in the township's Ward 27, is a bright red-and-blue Unico bag that once held dry penne pasta. Sun-Brite Foods, which owns the popular Unico brand known for its pastas and canned goods, has not yet replied to queries from The Canadian Press.
Beside the pasta bag is a faded white tub of black cherry yogurt from the Loblaws brand Foremost Dairies. Loblaws has not yet responded to a request for comment, either.
A bright blue Oikos yogurt tub from Danone is a few centimetres away from the Foremost container. A spokesperson for Danone Canada said they were investigating whether the packaging could be identified as from the company's Canadian, European or American lines.
What can be confirmed is that it didn't come from Myanmar. None of the brands are sold there.
But Canada is part of an international treaty to prevent the dumping of plastic waste in developing countries and hasn't ever issued a permit to ship plastic waste to Myanmar.
So, how did it get there?
The Canadian Press, in partnership with Lighthouse Reports, an investigative newsroom based in the United Kingdom and collaborating with media outlets in Thailand, Myanmar, Poland, the United States and the U.K., is trying to answer that question.
In 2016, Canada was starting to address fallout after shipments of Canadian trash were sent to the Philippines illegally labelled as plastic for recycling. The move had created a high-profile international spat, which ultimately saw the Philippines ship the garbage back to Canada.
As part of its response, the federal government introduced a new regulation requiring plastic waste exports to get a permit from the federal Environment Department.
The regulations were updated again in 2021, after Canada agreed to implement a change to the Basel Convention governing international trade in hazardous waste.
The original convention, which Canada joined in 1992, was intended to prevent wealthy countries from dumping hazardous waste into the developing world. It requires informed consent from the importing country before such shipments can be made.
In 2019, an amendment was formally proposed to include plastic as a type of hazardous waste covered by the treaty. The majority of Basel Convention countries agreed to the amendment in March 2020, but Canada initially resisted,finally agreeing just weeks before the amendment took effect in January 2021.
The amendment means that Canada is not supposed to export plastic waste almost anywhere without prior, informed consent. If consent is provided and a permit granted, that means an importing country has confirmed it can manage the waste properly, including by recycling it or disposing of it in an "environmentally sound manner."
When a permit is issued, the federal Environment Department tracks the shipments and requires confirmation of the end stage recycling or disposal.
However, there is a caveat. If the waste is considered to be "clean and sorted" and intended for recycling, no permit is needed. But there are few limits or checks to see if the waste conforms.
Data the department provided to The Canadian Press show a total of 16 permits for plastic waste exports have been issued since 2016 — half under the 2016 regulations and half under the updated version in 2021. Nine of them were for shipments to Malaysia, six to the Netherlands and one was for Denmark. None of them were for Myanmar.
Trade data, which are tracked using an international coding system, show Canada exported plastic waste to dozens of countries in that time. In 2022, for example, Canada issued export permits for just two countries, but trade data list 26 countries that received Canada's plastic "waste, parings and scrap" exports.
In 2021, export permits were issued only for Malaysia, but trade data show exports were made to 40 countries.
The United Nations' Comtrade database, which tracks international exports and imports, says that between 2020 and 2023, Myanmar recorded imports of nearly 80,000 kilograms of plastic scrap waste from Canada, worth about $50,000.
The Environment Department would not make any of its experts on the plastic waste file available for an interview. However, in response to written questions, a spokesperson said the department would not track plastic waste that doesn't require permits.
In 2022, Canada exported 183 million kilograms of plastic waste. More than 90 per cent of it went to the United States, which is one of the few countries that is not a party to the Basel Convention.
Canada has its own agreement with the U.S. on plastic waste. Many critics feared that this would allow Canada to bypass its Basel obligations and ship waste to developing countries without getting their permission, by shipping it first to the U.S.
The Environment Department says the agreement doesn't allow for that.
"Without speculating on specific shipments leaving the United States, Environment and Climate Change Canada can confirm that plastic waste subject to the Basel Convention and destined to any party to the Basel Convention (including developing countries) requires an export permit before being exported from Canada, even when the shipment transits the U.S.," the department said in a statement.
But advocates pushing for an end to all plastic waste exports say that without ensuring all plastic waste conforms to recycling needs and is in fact recycled, Canada and other wealthy countries continue to sit by as their trash becomes someone else's problem.
"We've been violating the whole purpose of the Basel Convention for years and years and years," said Kathleen Ruff, a Canadian human-rights advocate who has made ending global plastic waste flows a key part of her work.
Multiple plastic waste importers interviewed in Myanmar told Frontier's reporters that a large portion of international waste they bring in is too contaminated to be recycled. Often it's household waste that is filled with products that can't be recycled, or requires too much effort to separate and clean to make it economically useful.
The owners of one import company told Frontier Myanmar that about 60 per cent of the plastic they buy is imported, and about 10 per cent of that has to be thrown out because it's not recyclable.
An employee at a large recycling factory in Yangon told Frontier Myanmar they can only return unusable plastic waste if they buy it locally. Anything imported cannot be returned and unusable waste is thrown out. They estimated they throw out the equivalent of a "big-sized car" every month.
Ruff said many wealthy countries claim they're supporting industries in developing countries, and they don't have the ability to recycle the material at home.
But she said the whole point of the Basel Convention is to prevent rich waste from harming people in the poorest countries, and Myanmar is the latest proof that it's not working.
"The experience has been internationally … that this has been a disaster," she said.
"It hasn't been effective "
In Shwepyithar, the garbage problem began to pile up in earnest within the last year.
Established less than 40 years ago, Shwepyithar is one of Yangon's newer townships. It was envisioned as a place where green space would prevail, to encourage outdoor recreation. As homes were built, large lots were left vacant, with the plan to eventually turn them into parks.
But those parks never materialized. Instead, the open spaces, interspersed between every 100 or so homes, are an ideal dumping ground and most have now become flooded with trash.
Until 2018, China was the main destination for the world's recycling plastics, with the feedstock being used to supply its insatiable manufacturing industries.
But in January of that year, China slammed the door shut to most plastic waste imports. It complained that the vast majority of it was too contaminated to be recycled and was just ending up in Chinese landfills or incinerators.
The decision triggered some major problems for municipal recycling systems in wealthy countries, which were suddenly competing for limited new destinations in other Asian countries.
In 2020, Interpol reported a sharp rise in the illegal plastic pollution trade, as unscrupulous dealers promised to buy plastic recycling from cities around the world, including in Canada, with no intention of ever recycling it.
Many would dump it illegally in places such as Indonesia, Vietnam and Thailand. As those countries began to get more careful about what was coming into their ports, the trade shifted, with Myanmar becoming a more common dumping station.
A Myanmar government document from 2020, discussing the amendments to the Basel Convention related to plastic waste and the development of new laws in Myanmar, made note of the difficulty in distinguishing acceptable shipments from ones that are not.
That presentation, made before the country's military coup, came as Myanmar was implementing tough new laws about plastic imports.
Officially, items under the international code 3915, for plastic waste and scraps, are banned from imports to Myanmar. But there are exceptions for licensed plastic traders, and since the coup, enforcement has become more limited.
Okka Phyo Maung, founder and head of Myanmar recycling organization RecyGlo, told Frontier Myanmar's reporters that there are now illegal dump sites all over the country, but the Yangon region is the worst because of its big industrial zones.
Okka said foreign companies pay brokers to bring the waste into Myanmar, and sell it to small businesses that are trying to work as recyclers.
"About 70 per cent of the waste is usable and 30 per cent is very bad, and they will just dump it in a landfill," he said.
Okka said the brokers don't care what happens to the waste because they get paid both by the western companies looking to off-load the waste, and the Myanmar recyclers looking for plastic to turn into pellets for local factories.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 19, 2023.
Mia Rabson, The Canadian Press