MANILA, Philippines — Justin Trudeau's visit to the Philippines brought him within a short walk of a Canadian controversy that has lingered in the Port of Manila for years: about 100 stranded containers crammed with thousands of tons of rotting trash from Canada.
The case of the rancid Canadian garbage, festering in Manila for about four years, is well known in the Philippines — it's made headlines and led to protests by environmental and public-health activists.
They've been calling on Canada to repatriate the waste, which is said to include old wires, CDs, used plastic cups and soiled adult diapers. Estimates in local news reports say there could be as much as 2,500 tons of trash in 103 shipping containers.
The shipments were allowed into the country because they were allegedly disguised as recyclable plastics. Upon inspection, however, customs officers discovered they were stuffed with reeking household trash — or worthless landfill junk.
The customs bureau warned the material could be hazardous and impounded the shipment.
During a visit to Manila two years ago, Trudeau was asked by a local reporter about the Canadian garbage.
He replied at the time that a "Canadian solution" was in the works and he vowed to make legislative changes to make sure it wouldn't happen again.
"It's two years already and the waste still remains here," said Aileen Lucero, national co-ordinator of Manila's EcoWaste Coalition, one of many groups that have been fighting for the removal of the rubbish.
Coincidentally, she said a photo-op Sunday brought the prime minister within about 100 metres of the site.
Trudeau, in Manila for a summit of southeast Asian countries, made local media headlines with his visit to a nearby Jollibee fast-food joint — a restaurant chain that's sometimes referred to as the Filipino McDonalds.
He used the visit as a way to highlight the connection between the Philippines and Canada, where the company opened a store last year in Winnipeg to cater to the city's large Filipino population.
With news cameras rolling, Trudeau worked his way around the store greeting customers and staff, high-fiving toddlers and posing for selfies. A photo of his visit landed on the front page of a major Manila daily Monday morning.
He also ordered a meal — to go.
"It is OK for us that the prime minister dropped by a 100-per-cent Filipino restaurant and take out fries or a burger for himself," Lucero said in an interview Monday.
"But there is (something) much more important to take out and that is the Canada waste."
Her network of community groups fears the trash has contaminated the area where it's stored. The intense rainy seasons in the country likely mean toxins have leached into the soil over the years, she added.
In 2014, the Philippine government recommended the containers be returned to Canada under the provisions of the Basel Convention, which prohibits developed countries from shipping waste to developing nations.
Ottawa is well aware of the fact the Philippine government cares deeply about resolving the situation, which was created by a commercial decision, said a senior Canadian official who spoke on condition anonymity.
The Canadian government had found a way to dispose of the waste in a location inside the Philippines in an environmentally responsible way, said the official, who wasn't authorized to discuss the matter publicly. But Ottawa is now waiting to see the Philippine government's next move following a court decision, which could mean the trash must be deported to Canada.
Canada now stands ready to work with local authorities to transport the trash back to Canada, if necessary, the official said.
Francisco Fernandez, the deputy chief of mission at the Philippine Embassy in Ottawa, said the case is still before the courts in the Philippines, but officials from both countries are working to find a solution.
"I think both sides have already indicated their willingness to address the issue in a quick manner as possible taking into consideration whatever decision the trial court of the Philippines would have as regards the complaint pending before it," said Fernandez.
News reports have said that Chronic Inc., a plastics exporter based in Ontario, shipped at least some of the containers to the Philippines in 2013 and 2014. Jim Makris, the head of Chronic, could not be reached for comment Monday.
But he has flatly denied he shipped waste to the Philippines.
"Their story of this garbage thing is just driving me nuts," Makris told the Toronto Star in 2014. "Anybody who's in plastic, who knows plastic, will tell you. It's the stupidest thing I've heard of in my entire life."
Lucero said she would've appreciated a visit by Trudeau to the waste site while he was in the area, so he could see it with his own eyes.
"Canada has the resources ... they have their own means of removing waste and treating waste in an environmental manner," she said. "Before the Canadian waste happened, Canada had a great reputation of establishing environmental health."
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Andy Blatchford, The Canadian Press