When you think about your country’s top exports, do you think garbage?
In “How the hell did it get HERE?”, get to know the touching personal story of a Filipino Bureau of Customs Official who has dedicated his 30-year career to ensuring foreign trash is not illegally smuggled into his country. John Simon went from being an everyday customs collector to capturing the attention of international headlines for stopping the biggest waste shipment - containing 8,000 tons of garbage - from being dumped in the Philippines.
Tune in to hear John Simon’s story of courage and the corrupt business of waste.
Don’t forget to subscribe to People Over Plastic on all major podcast apps and follow us on Instagram and Twitter @peoplexplastic, happy listening!
John Simon received the prestigious United Nations Environment Program Award as one of 8 winners on the frontlines of protecting our planet.To learn more about the inner-workings of the waste trade and its impact on import countries, check out:
The Plastic Waste Trade Manifesto by Break Free From Plastic
Plastic for Profit [Tracing illicit plastic waste flows, supply chains and actors] by the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime
<< sound of water lapping, sound of a boat horn >>
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JOHN SIMON, SOUND BYTE [00:11]: How in the hell did it get here in the first place?
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SHILPI CHHOTRAY - Host [00:20]: Hi, everyone. Shilpi Chhotray here. In this episode of People Over Plastic, we're going to dive into the underworld of waste. Okay, let me take a second to talk to you about waste colonialism. Simply put, this is when wealthier nations, including the United States, ship their trash to less resourced countries. This is a direct violation of their rights to a clean and healthy environment. When we started thinking about the concept of this season’s show, Waste Mafia, I couldn't think of a better person to speak with than Sir John Simon, a notable Bureau of Customs officer from the Philippines. He literally stopped the biggest waste shipment in history from treating his country like a dumping ground.
SHILPI CHHOTRAY [01:08]: How do you feel about this concept of trading garbage?
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JOHN SIMON [01:12]: It is so terrible because the poor countries are the ones being victimized. Yet rich countries like Korea, Canada, Australia, and even the United States are guilty of using the poor countries as their garbage can.
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NEWS CLIP, REPORTER 1 [01:33]: After almost two years, smuggled waste that came from South Korea in July 2018 has been completely returned to its country of origin,
NEW CLIPS, REPORTER 2 [01:45]: Stuffed inside dozens of shipping containers filled with plastic, ostensibly for recycling, but contaminated with dirty diapers and electronic waste.
NEWS CLIP, REPORTER 1 [01:53]: According to district collector John Simon. This is the largest volume of smuggled waste seized by the Bureau of Customs.
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SHILPI CHHOTRAY, NARRATION [02:05]: Water contamination, crop death, illness and even the open burning of plastic waste have flooded into communities across Asia under the guise of recycled plastics.
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SHILPI CHHOTRAY, NARRATION [02:21]: The one thing that has always stood out to me in my years of talking to colleagues who experience this on a daily basis is how they describe certain sensory details. My heart broke hearing Sir John describing the smell.
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JOHN SIMON [02:34]: I've never been exposed to that kind of a smell. The many people who came over there who tried to make the investigation, they became sick after a few days after that. So they have this fever. And that only proves one thing: that it's a highly toxic area when we were there. So can you just imagine from July of 2018 until September of 2020, the garbage was there. This kind of material has to undergo some kind of process in their countries. It did not. So it is an illegal shipment.
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SHILPI CHHOTRAY [03:16]: And when we're talking about, the volume of waste, like how much are we actually talking?
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JOHN SIMON [03:25]: Well, we're talking about around 8000 metric tons of private - the biggest ever in the history of the country. Why? Because those 78,000 metric tonnes is equivalent to something like 400 to 500 container loads. So 40 footer, you multiply that by 400, that is the number of garbage that was brought in. And unfortunately, the recycling plant is merely a front. The idea is to bury it. And if it doesn't work, to burn it. If the burning doesn't work, they will just throw it on the cliff.
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Because as you very well know, this part of the country has very mountainous parts. The place that where they throw all of this garbage is a very isolated area. And the place is so green. There are a lot of trees.
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And most of the trees died.
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And I was holding one of them as if it was a human being. And I embraced that and I apologized to the tree.
SHILPI CHHOTRAY, NARRATION [05:07]: Pretty incredible, right? At this point in Sir John’s story, I was practically hanging off the edge of my seat. I had to know what was next.
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SHILPI CHHOTRAY [05:15]: And so where is the waste now?
JOHN SIMON [05:17]: It's now back to the motherland of Korea. <laughs>
SHILPI CHHOTRAY [05:24]: Do we know what they did with it?
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JOHN SIMON [05:25]: Ah yes. They burn it.
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JOHN SIMON [05:35]: So as a customs collector, at that early, I had no idea as to the presence of garbage in this part of the country. When we arrived at the scene, we were able to find the mountain of garbage. It was declared as a synthetic plastic flakes. It was not declared as garbage. But when you look closely, you will find diapers, you'll find household items. You're going to see wrappers of candies, cans, wood, all kinds of materials, even metal. So it's really garbage, by the smell of it, by the looks of it. It looks garbage. How did it arrive in the Philippines? How did they make it possible? So I was able to learn that it's some kind of pay, I would say, conspiracy <laughs> between several groups, both from the private sector and also from the public sector. So I will not name them, but it is a – this kind of operation was brought in because of their cooperation.
SHILPI CHHOTRAY [07:03]: John Simon, when we talked earlier, you kind of walked me through how they passed through a private-owned port of entry. Walk me through all the steps before it landed in your port and what that was like.
JOHN SIMON [07:17]: We do have what you call an official ports of entry, and you can see them and they can be visible every time you go there.
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But in a private port, it's not within the radar, the usual radar. You can bring in under the cover of darkness.
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Which means at night, no one will see you. You can operate privately. The good thing is that because of this smell, somebody made a report to it to us. So that is the reason why it caught my attention.
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SHILPI CHHOTRAY, NARRATION [08:02]: Let me take a moment to explain what's going on at the global level. In 2018, China stopped taking the world's waste in an effort to protect their own country from the harms of waste dumping. Of course, this was great news for China, but not for countries like India, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, and of course, the Philippines. Once a country enacts measures to stop waste from coming into its borders, it floods into the next unregulated destination. And when that country implements regulations, the waste keeps traveling on and on. There is no transparency in tracking what's being done with it. What I kept thinking about is if another country's trash ended up being dumped here in the San Francisco Bay or if we were a thruway to another community, who is accountable for this lost waste?
SHILPI CHHOTRAY [08:56]: So do we know about the shipping companies that carry the garbage? I know you mentioned one, but who funds them and are they owned by the South Korea government?
JOHN SIMON [09:06]: There's a private company in Korea. They call it Green Soho. That is their name. Here, they are known as Verde Soho. It’s Green Soho. And green Soho disappeared during the investigation in South Korea! They just couldn't find them.
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SHILPI CHHOTRAY [09:27]: They disappeared! Because they knew they were going to get in trouble?
JOHN SIMON [09:30]: The Korean government told us that they have an order coming from their local courts that these people also have a warrant of arrest. Another report from the Interpol has identified that the persons responsible for bringing it here in the Philippines has a warrant of arrest in the local courts because of the report from the international police or Interpol.
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SHILPI CHHOTRAY, NARRATION [10:00]: For Sir John, the media was his biggest ally. They made some serious noise. This had a huge impact on the community because the illegal shipping of waste never makes mainstream headlines. Most people in both import and export countries have no idea what's actually going on behind the scenes.
JOHN SIMON [10:21]: When I spoke out, a lot of people listened. The media is on our side. Ordinary citizens is on our side. The church is on our side. And it's a good thing that the United Nations also came in, and they tried to monitor what is going on. And that is the reason why at the end of the day, when all of these things that have been exported of February of last year, an award was given to us by the United Nations Environmental Program, as one of the eight Asian environmentalists who had been successful in fighting what you call transboundary environmental crime.
SHILPI CHHOTRAY [11:10]: And who would you say are the people that should have been supporting?
JOHN SIMON [11:16]: Well, of course, now on the top of that is the provisional government. Next is the national government who should have been assisting us all the way. We are risking our lives, risking our health, risking everything just to get rid of this because that is the way it should be. Unfortunately, there are people who turn a blind eye on all this. Why? Because they are the ones who have a stake to this. They were the ones who made it possible for this illegality to happen. Waste smuggling in this country - I would say that it has created the emotional impact of the people to rise and denounce the entry, the illegal entry of garbage in our country.
SHILPI CHHOTRAY [12:14]: Well, you should be really proud of yourself because you are standing up against multiple people within your own country but at a global scale and very powerful industries. So it's setting, like, a very strong precedent that everyday people should not be [taken] advantage of.
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SHILPI CHHOTRAY, NARRATION [12:34]: For our listeners in the United States, listen up. Our country is no exception when it comes to exporting waste from local recycling programs. And what's important to know is the plastic crisis has a clear point of origin: the corporations that mass produce plastic packaging to boost profits. In fact, the plastics industry has been deceiving consumers since the 1970s by convincing us that their products are recyclable, even though less than 9% of plastics ever produced has been recycled. Some countries, particularly in Asia, have historically had lower restrictions resulting in dumping and burning of unrecyclable plastic. However, not all export markets are bad actors, and not all domestic markets are good. The answer is less about geography and more about demanding transparency.
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Communities deserve to know where their recyclables are going and what they're getting turned into.
JOHN SIMON [13:36]: How could a Filipino do this to the Philippines? I cannot imagine. I cannot believe it. It's unbelievable. So as I investigate, as I move forward to the case, then finally, I was able to establish that, oh my God, there are Filipinos involved with this.
SHILPI CHHOTRAY [13:58]: How did that feel to you?
JOHN SIMON [14:00]: I feel so down because here we are doing everything we can for our country, and we are just people, for just a few bucks, would be willing to sell even their mothers?
SHILPI CHHOTRAY, NARRATION [14:14]: As you can imagine, it takes a lot of courage to speak out on this level of corruption when it seems like everyone in power, even your own government, is connected in some way. For Sir John, it was the support of his community that gave him the strength to continue to apply pressure.
JOHN SIMON [14:35]: I am frightened first when I felt that everybody around me might have a hand in it. You are only afraid when you are alone. But when the support came in, that is where the fear evaporated. The issue came out so fast because of the involvement of the two mainstream giant media networks of the country. So they were the ones who are dishing out information day after day, hour after hour.
SHILPI CHHOTRAY [15:13]: Was your job ever on the line for speaking up?
JOHN SIMON [15:16]: Yes, of course. People can manufacture lies and make use of this as an excuse to take me out and reassign me somewhere else.
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SHILPI CHHOTRAY [15:29]: Have other countries tried to bring waste into your port since the South Korea bust?
JOHN SIMON [15:36]: Canada tried, but of course they were also taken back. Hong Kong, China tried one container load of e-waste. That was terrible of them all because it my port, here in my port, and it has the highest chemical content. And it's a good thing they were not able to unload it. By the time that they arrived. I told them, “Get the hell out of this country. I want you back.”
SHILPI CHHOTRAY [16:06]: What do you want to see in terms of plastic, though? Do you want it to be disappearing?
JOHN SIMON [16:11]: Total ban on all kinds of waste, including plastics. Total ban. I want the industrialized nations of the world, the ones producing the waste, to be more conscientious and not to think that poor people, poor countries, are willing to accept their garbage. We may be poor, but we have dignity. We may be poor, but it doesn't mean that we deserve the garbage can.
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SHILPI CHHOTRAY, NARRATION [16:46]: I wanted to learn more about Sir John’s feelings about the future and how we tackle big issues like plastic and climate change.
JOHN SIMON [16:56]: The youth is the future of every country. They have to come out and unite because that is - that is for them. They are the future. And if they will not act on their own now, what future holds for them? A world full of plastics and garbage? This is not a garbage can of any country. We are a country who does not encourage the importation of garbage. So if you are bringing in any garbage from any part of the world, we will surely stop you. So as a law enforcement officer, that's my job - to stop you - if you want to bring in garbage into my country.
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SHILPI CHHOTRAY, NARRATION [17:56]: And that's our show. We hope you enjoyed listening to Sir John’s story which really gets into the heart of the Waste Mafia. For more information about the global waste trade, check out our show notes. “How the Hell Did It Get HERE?” was produced by Dennis Maxwell. Stay tuned for our next episode and don't forget to subscribe. You can continue the conversation on Instagram and Twitter. See you next time.
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Season and episode cover artwork by Greg Dubois @marvelgd