Malaysia to send 3,000 tonnes of plastic waste back to countries of origin

Updated May 29, 2019

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Klang (Malaysia): Workers open a container full of non-recyclable plastic detained by authorities at this port on Tuesday. — AP
Klang (Malaysia): Workers open a container full of non-recyclable plastic detained by authorities at this port on Tuesday. — AP

PORT KLANG: Malaysia will send as much as 3,000 tonnes of plastic waste back to the countries it came from, the environment minister said on Tuesday, the latest Asian country to reject rich countries’ rubbish.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte last week ordered his government to hire a private shipping company to send 69 containers of garbage back to Canada and leave them within its territorial waters if it refuses to accept them.

Canada says the waste, exported to the Philippines between 2013 and 2014, was a commercial transaction done without government consent.

Canada had agreed to take the rubbish back but Duterte lost patience as arrangements were being made and ordered it out.

Around 300 million tonnes of plastic are produced every year, according to the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF), with much of it ending up in landfill or polluting the seas, in what is becoming a growing international crisis.

China had previously taken a large amount of waste for recycling, but abruptly stopped last year, saying it wanted to improve its own environment.

Now Southeast Asian countries that stepped in to plug this gap say they have had enough.

“We urge developed countries to stop shipping garbage to our country,” said Yeo Bee Yin, Malaysia’s minister of energy, technology, science, environment and climate change, adding it was “unfair and uncivilised”.

“We will return it back to the country of origin without any mercy,” she said, after an inspection of several waste-filled containers at Port Klang, the country’s busiest port.

Plastic imports to Malaysia have tripled since 2016, to 870,000 tonnes last year, official data showed.

The influx has sparked a rapid increase in the number of recycling plants, many of them operating without a licence and with little regard for environmental standards.

Lee Chee Kwang, an activist with Environment Protection Agency Kuala Langat, said Malaysia has “failed miserably” to manage the rubbish coming into the country.

“The government must ban entry of plastic waste and declare it as public enemy number one,” he said.

While Malaysia allows the import of homogenous and clean waste plastics for the recycling industry, there are growing public calls for the government to ban the import of used plastics altogether.

The country’s move to ship the refuse back was “only a symbolic public stunt which does not solve the problem,” Lee said. “The solution is a total ban of imports of all kinds of plastic.” Minister Yeo vowed a crackdown on illegal imports and recycling facilities. The Malaysians involved in importing the waste are “traitors”, she said.

“Malaysia will not be a dumping ground to the world,” Yeo added. “We cannot be bullied by the developed countries.” The ministry said 450 tonnes of contaminated plastic waste in 10 containers — from Australia, Bangladesh, Canada, China, Japan, Saudi Arabia and the United States — will be shipped back.

Port officials said their contents were misdeclared, but did not give a date for the shipment.

“These containers are filled with contaminated, non-homogenous, low-quality, non-recyclable plastic waste, and are routed to processing facilities which do not have the technology to recycle in an environmentally sound manner,” the ministry said.

Malaysia last month sent back five containers filled with plastic waste to Spain.

Inspections are being carried out on more than 50 other containers brought in illegally.

Yeo said it will take until the end of the year to fully deal with the problem.

She said 150 illegal waste recycling plants had been shut down.

But the problem is widespread and citizens are taking action over the plastic influx.

Published in Dawn, May 29th, 2019