Malaysia will no longer be the world’s ‘dumping site’

The Southeast Asia country is putting a stop to all illegal importing of plastic waste into the country from wealthier nations. 

In fact, those who still regard Malaysia as the world’s cheapest rubbish bin can ‘dream on’. 

Environment Minister Yeo Bee Yin announced five days ago that it has returned up to 150 containers of plastic trash to their respective countries of origin, including France, Britain, and the United States.

Yeo also added that she intends to ship back another 110 containers in the near future, 60 of which will be US-bound.

Moreover, Malaysia refuses to foot any of the costs of shipping back these wastes. Shipping liners and private companies responsible for handling the import and export of the plastic trash will have to bear the costs of taking them back. 

Once the world’s largest importer of plastic recyclables and processing up to half of the world’s trash for the past three decades, China decided to halt imports of 24 solid waste categories including plastic in 2017. 

Its move immediately prompted the flooding of plastic waste to Southeast Asian countries the likes of Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam, Malaysia, and the Philippines. 

Scores of companies, legal and illegal, mushroomed overnight in these countries to capitalise on a global recycling industry estimated to be worth US$200 billion. 

Unable to keep up with the mounting waste and lacking the appropriate technology, illegal recycling operators in small towns around Malaysia are burning unrecyclable scraps to cut costs. The noxious fumes that result pose a serious threat to human health especially for residents living in the vicinity.

So far, authorities in Malaysia have shut down at least 30 of these illegal plastic reprocessing facilities. Yeo also wants to step up on stricter enforcement and inspections by freezing or limiting the granting of licenses and conducting more raids on illegal plants. 

She is also working closely with lawmakers to permanently ban the entry of non-recyclable plastics into Malaysia, and to ensure only high-value recyclable plastics make their way into the country.

The tricky issue with plastic processing is that the West may have the technology for it, but not the cheap labour nor lax environmental regulations common in Asia to actually be a lucrative venture.

In fact, it costs a hefty US$3,500-4,000 per container of plastic to transport and process this waste within the US, versus just US$300-500 to ship it all the way to the other side of the world.

As such, a sending back of plastic waste from Malaysia to the developed West is more likely than not a forwarding of such waste to a more willing Southeast Asian buyer. 

Possible solutions exist to deal with plastic’s thorny footprint and lifecycle globally. 

But whether it’s reducing global usage of non-recyclable plastic, or developing the technology to safely process all types of plastic waste, it is going to take more than Asia’s refusal to be the world’s rubbish bin to solve.

To date, Environment Minister Yeo Bee Yin has sent back 150 containers or approximately 3,737 metric tonnes of plastic waste to key export countries including the US, Canada, Great Britain, Spain, France, and Japan. Photo from Yeo’s Facebook page