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A diplomatic vehicle leaves the Philippines embassy in Ottawa on May 16, 2019.CHRIS WATTIE/Reuters

The Philippines has escalated a dispute with Canada over tonnes of mouldering Canadian garbage sent to Manila half a decade ago, recalling its ambassador and consulate heads.

Philippine Secretary of Foreign Affairs Teodoro Locsin said Canada missed a May 15 deadline to take back the garbage, which was erroneously labelled as recyclable plastic when it was first shipped to the Southeast Asian country.

He said on Twitter that his country would maintain a “diminished diplomatic presence in Canada” until the garbage – dozens of shipping containers of trash including soiled adult diapers – is removed from his country.

Mr. Locsin also revealed it was Canada’s failure to show up at a meeting with Philippines officials that prompted Manila to raise the stakes.

He said officials “informed me that Canada did not show up at a meeting with customs and that was the trigger.”

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Thursday offered no apologies for missing the deadline but said he hopes to solve this problem in the near future. He did not answer when asked why this matter has dragged on for more than five years.

“We are going to continue to work on this and we very much hope to get to a resolution shortly,” Mr. Trudeau told reporters on the margins of unrelated meetings in Paris.

Earlier this month, the Philippine Department of Finance told journalists that Canada offered in writing on April 24 to arrange for and cover the full cost of shipping all remaining containers of garbage.

A spokeswoman for Environment Minister Catherine McKenna said Ottawa is contracting with a company to bring the waste back to Canada.

“We are disappointed by [the Philippines’] decision to recall their ambassador and consuls general, after we have repeatedly conveyed our commitment to resolving this issue and we continue to propose solutions,” press secretary Sabrina Kim said in a statement.

A Canadian government official, who was granted anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss details of the matter publicly, said Ottawa also has to take steps to safeguard Canadians from the returned garbage, including the possibility of pathogens and viruses that may have formed within the containers.

The source said Ottawa is considering legal options to address the wrongdoings of the exporting company involved, but the company in question is no longer in business.

Ms. Kim said at the root of this is the failure of the Canadian company that shipped the garbage there to live up to its obligations.

“It is inexcusable that a Canadian company has walked away from its responsibilities in his matter,” she said. “The Philippines have considered legal options to address the wrongdoings of the importing company in this matter.”

Last month, Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte had said he would “declare war” on Canada if it failed to take back the trash and he had set a deadline.

Philippine-Canada relations have soured in the past two years despite growing immigration ties between the two countries. The number of Canadians of Filipino descent has grown fast over the past decade and as of 2016 there were more than 850,000 in Canada.

Mr. Duterte and Mr. Trudeau first clashed in November, 2017, when the Canadian leader raised the Duterte regime’s human-rights record, including allegedly unlawful killings, at a summit in Manila. Mr. Duterte later lashed out publicly at Mr. Trudeau, calling foreign questioning of the matter “a personal and official insult.”

Then in February, 2018, the federal government cancelled a deal to sell Montreal-made Bell helicopters to the Philippine military amid rising concerns about supplying armed forces that have been accused of extrajudicial killings.

Mr. Duterte responded by suggesting Mr. Trudeau didn’t understand the “world and geopolitics” and accused the Canadian leader of wanting to be “corny and pretended to be peaceful and all that.”

The garbage dispute has been building since 2013 and 2014, after a Canadian company sent 103 containers to the Manila International Container Terminal. Authorities inspected more than half of them and found they were not recyclable plastic but mixed waste, including plastic bottles, plastic bags, newspapers, household garbage and used adult diapers.

The contents of 34 of these containers were disposed of by the Philippines, but 69 remain.

NDP MP Peter Julian, who represents a Vancouver-area riding, said he’s heard from many Filipino Canadians who have said they are insulted by Canada’s foot dragging on the mislabelled garbage. “The Filipino government is absolutely right and our government is wrong.”

He said the Trudeau government’s record on this file harms their environmental reputation and makes it look like they are “green in theory only … they don’t walk the talk."

This bilateral dispute originally began under the former Harper government, but Mr. Julian said that, after close to four years in power, the Liberals cannot blame this on the Conservatives. “I think the Trudeau government wears this,” he said.

A legal non-profit group, the Pacific Centre for Environmental Law and Litigation, last month issued an opinion that said there is a strong argument that Canada violated international law by failing to immediately take back the garbage.

The organization said Canada failed to discharge its obligation under the Basel Convention, which controls the international trade and disposal of hazardous goods, to ensure the return of shipments of wastes when this movement is deemed “illegal traffic.” In this case, the traffic was illegal because the contents did not match the description of what shippers had declared was entering the Philippines.

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Is it possible to live truly plastic-free?

Last week, Canada and 186 other countries agreed to amend the Basel Convention to make the global trade in plastic waste more transparent and better regulated, while ensuring its management is safer for human health and the environment.

The aim is to reduce the amount of plastic in the world’s oceans and force developed countries to deal with their own waste, rather than simply exporting it.

With a report from The Canadian Press

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