Malaysia has become one of the world’s biggest single-use plastic rubbish importers since China rejected much of the world’s unwanted recycling in 2017.
One small town in western Malaysia, Jenjarom, is the focal point of the environmentally ruinous trade with an estimated 17,000 tonnes of waste.
The BBC reported that every night illegal recycling factories have been secretly burning plastic since last year.
Pictures of black smoke billowing from burning plastic mountains contrast with the promotional photos Tourism Malaysia distributes.
In 2017 China banned the import of foreign plastic waste. That year it imported 7 million tonnes of plastic scrap.
The bulk of the plastic waste, which is mostly from the US, UK and Japan, was then sent to Malaysia.
Greenpeace Malaysia said the waste came from 19 countries, after investigating packaging labels at dumpsites.
The Straits Times in neighbouring Singapore ran the headline: “Malaysia – where the world sends its trash”.
Jenjarom is close to Klang, Malaysia’s largest port, and there were soon estimated to be more than 40 illegal factories in the Kuala Langat region, according to an NGO in the area.
From January to July last year, around 754,000 tonnes of plastic waste arrived in Malaysia and the town’s “recycling” industry, worth over RM3 billion (US$734 million), grew up.
Malaysia has now been rated as one of the world’s worst countries for plastic pollution, with the most dumped or burned.
Environmental NGO Persatuan Tindakan Alam Sekitar Kuala Langat’s secretary, Pua Lay Peng, said the authorities should shut down the factories.
Pua is not impressed by promises of licence and verification fees and new charges for each tonne of plastic imported to be imposed soon.
Pua, who lives in Kuala Langat, said: “Higher fees will not solve the problem.”
She said Malaysia should ban the import of foreign waste as China did in 2017.
Plastic rubbish is supposed to be recycled into pellets, which can then be used to manufacture other plastics.
But illegal recycling firms have been burning or burying the vast quantities of single-use plastic that is deemed unfit for recycling.
Ngoo Kwi Hong told the media the acrid smoke from the burning made her cough up a blood clot.
“I couldn’t sleep at night because it was so smelly. I became like a zombie, I was so tired,” said Ngoo.
“It was only later I found out there were factories surrounding my house: north, south, east, west.”
The burning plastic releases toxic dioxins and carbon monoxide that causes the town’s residents to have difficulty breathing, persistent coughing, fatigue and itchy, watery eyes, Greenpeace reports.
Belle Tan, who has an illegal factory 1km from her house, said the health of her 11-year-old son had suffered.
Tan said: “He got a really bad rash around his stomach, neck, legs and arms. His skin would keep peeling, even when we touched him it hurt. I was angry and scared for his health but what could I do? The smell was everywhere in the air.”
Asean and the wider world need to stamp out single-use plastics. Picture credit: Asean Economist