Pressure increases on recycling exports as Malaysia returns plastic waste

The Malaysian Government has announced that it will be sending back around 3,000 tonnes of contaminated plastic waste imported from developed countries, though the UK has yet to receive a request from the Malaysian authorities to repatriate any illegal waste.

The Malaysian Environment Minister Yeo Bee Yin announced that after 60 containers full of contaminated waste had been smuggled into illegal processing facilities in the country, they would be being sent back to the countries where they originated, with 10 to be sent back within two weeks, asserting that “Malaysia will not be a dumping ground”.

Shipping containers at Malaysia's Port Klang.
Shipping containers at the Malaysian port of Klang.
Among the waste uncovered at the port of Klang, outside the capital Kuala Lumpur, were plastic cables from the UK, contaminated milk cartons from Australia and electronic and household waste from the US, Canada, Japan, Saudia Arabia and China.

Commenting on the findings, Yeo said: “This is probably just the tip of the iceberg [due] to the banning of plastic waste by China.

“Malaysia will not be a dumping ground to the world. We will fight back. Even though we are a small country, we can’t be bullied by developed countries.”

She continued: “We urge the developed countries to review their management of plastic waste and stop shipping the rubbish out to the developing countries.”

However, contrary to reports in the media over the past few days, the UK has not yet been asked to take back any unlawful exports of waste, with an Environment Agency spokesperson saying: “The UK is committed to tackling illegal waste exports, which is why individuals found to be exporting incorrectly described waste can face a two year jail term or an unlimited fine.

“We are yet to receive a formal request from the Malaysian authorities to repatriate any English waste, but discussions are ongoing to find ways to strengthen UK waste export management.”

A flood of plastic

Malaysia has seen an influx of waste imports following China’s ban on 24 grades of solid waste, including mixed post-consumer plastics, at the start of 2018. Exporters have been seeking alternative markets for waste no longer accepted by China, which was previously the largest export market for secondary materials.

This led to Malaysia imposing import restrictions in August of last year, revoking the import licences for 114 factories across the country, while it was announced in October that the government had permanently banned the issue of import permits for plastic waste.

The impact of waste exported to low-income countries has come under the microscope in recent times, with reports describing how Southeast Asian countries such as Malaysia, Thailan, Vietnam and Indonesia have been flooded with plastic waste, overwhelming their waste management systems and wreaking havoc on the environment.

In response, calls have been made to ban the export of the UK’s plastic waste to developing countries – an Early Day Motion on the matter was signed by 35 MPs in February – while plastic waste has been added to the list of wastes subject to controls under the Basel Convention, an agreement that controls the international movement of hazardous wastes.

Commenting on the news that Malaysia will be returning contaminated waste discovered to originate from Western countries, Sian Sutherland, Co-founder of plastic waste campaign group A Plastic Planet, said: "For decades the rich Western countries have been sending our plastic waste to developing countries in the name of recycling. We have been lobbying hard for a law to ban this immoral practice.

"It is waste imperialism of the worst kind and it has happened in the name of good citizens thinking they are doing the right thing; rinsing out their yogurt pots believing they are being recycled into something useful. Nine per cent of our plastic is ever recycled in the UK; less than five per cent in the US.

"We need to deal with our own dirt. If our waste is invisible to us, being hidden in developing countries, we will never realise that the only answer is to turn off the plastic tap."

‘Entering very difficult waters’

Despite the calls to ban exports of plastic waste, some have urged caution. The Recycling Association’s Chief Executive Simon Ellin said: "We are entering very difficult waters here. From the photos I have seen of the material that is being sent back to countries around the world, it looks like the mixed supermarket films that are collected from the kerbside collection schemes by local authorities.

"These particular materials are so variable and difficult to separate and recycle that we have a stark choice now of whether to stop collecting them altogether or we move the material down the waste hierarchy and incinerate them while recovering the energy.”

He added that while countries suffering under the strain of imports were “right to crack down on illegal imports”, the international trade of secondary commodities “benefits all parts of the manufacturing supply chain” and “legitimate exporters of a high-quality product should not be blamed for the actions of a minority."

Ellin reiterated that the Recycling Association was “against illegal exports” of poor quality materials to other nations, and urged exporting companies to work to meet the import requirements of importing countries, highlighting the work it has done with its Quality First campaign to push this approach.

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