KUALA LUMPUR, Dec 17 — Using her bare hands, environmental researcher Wong Pui Yi scrabbled through the dusty and dirty bales of plastic trash abandoned in a shoplot at the Pulau Indah Industrial Area.
A mix of plastic and paper, some of the waste still had product labels on them, including one with food instructions written in Dutch and an address in South Africa. Filling out the space from top to bottom, this bunch of rubbish is one of several in the area.
“The waste is imported mixed waste so (this has probably been here since) 2018, 2019. It was easier to get them in (then). Now, it’s more difficult,” she told Bernama.
After China stopped buying almost all plastic waste in January 2018, Malaysia became a popular spot for waste-trafficking. According to government and United Nations statistics, the nation imported over 850,000 metric tonnes of plastic waste that year. Some ended up dumped, burned in illegal recycling factories, or abandoned.
Malaysia has since tightened permission to import, beefed up surveillance and enforcement at the ports, returned dozens of containers of “dirty plastic” to their countries of origin, and cracked down on illegal recycling factories. But three years later, the country is still struggling to get rid of the trash that managed to slip in before.
Wong, who is the plastic governance researcher at the Centre to Combat Corruption and Cronyism (C4), said there were many reasons why the trash was abandoned.
It could be that some trash that was brought in could not be recycled as they were contaminated mixed municipal waste, considered “dirty plastic.” Plastic containers made out of recycled plastic that have food residue in them are an example of “dirty plastic.”
She said other reasons the trash was possibly abandoned were because the owners had run off. Or that the premises had been used for sorting but became abandoned when nearby illegal factories were shut down.
Bernama shared photos and videos of the dump sites with industry experts and government agencies, who said this sort of dumping was very common. According to officers with the Klang Municipal Council (MPK), there were four dumping sites in that area alone, and 1,600 lots with a few illegal factories operating there.
“They indiscriminately dumped the waste in any available space without care (of the negative impacts it has on the environment),” said Zaireezal Ahmad Zairuddin, Environmental Services Department director at MPK.
Abandoning imported plastic waste was also the cheaper option all around.
Waste management expert Prof Dr P Agamuthu at Sunway University called it the modus operandi of the companies that illegally brought the trash in, usually by forging documents or mislabelling the type of waste.
“Then when they find that about 70 to 80 per cent of the materials are actually not worth recycling, they decided to throw it away. Because if they put it in the landfill, they have to pay the tipping fee,” he said.
Plastic recycler Datuk Johnson Yoon agreed, saying many of the illegal recyclers preferred to abandon the waste rather than recycle because the recycling process is complex and expensive.
“If DoE (Department of the Environment) called me up and told me to go settle the batch in Pulau Indah, I will get a headache too,” he said.
How did this happen?
Plastic casts a long shadow over the future.
The problem is plastic does not degrade easily and can only be recycled a limited amount of times. Plastic takes hundreds or thousands of years to degrade, so most of it still exists in some form. Should it have any organic residue on it, it cannot be recycled. The type of plastic also matters; if the trash is a mix of paper and plastic like takeaway coffee cups, it cannot be recycled either.
According to the World Bank, the world generates 1.82 billion metric tonnes of municipal solid waste every year. By 2050, the waste is expected to grow to 3.08 billion metric tonnes annually.
With the amount of waste produced, it has to go somewhere. Rather than actually sorting and recycling the waste people put in recycling bins, many countries opted the cheaper way of crushing the plastic trash into bales and sold them.
Operators in South-east Asia, including Malaysia, bought the waste and soon became overwhelmed. “It was easy to bring in because we didn’t expect it. Previously, there were already imports of plastic waste to Malaysia for recycling but it happened on a very small scale,” said Wong.
She added once the gates opened, the trash kept piling up.
Sahabat Alam Malaysia (SAM) researcher Mageswari Sangaralingam said with the excess plastic waste, many foreign investors came to set up recycling centres to deal with the trash.
“A lot were illegal because if you want to set up a legal facility, you would have to undergo many processes to get all the permits and licences, so that would take time. So it was much easier for them to set up illegal recycling facilities,’ she said.
Yoon, who is also the secretary-general of the Malaysian Plastic Recyclers Association (MPRA) remembered those days with anger. He said the illegal recyclers’ actions gave the legitimate recyclers a bad name, and the ensuing crackdown on illegal activities interfered with many members’ business.
“We had to stop, total stop, our operations. So you can see how bad it affected the legal plastic recyclers. It was very, very serious. We lost quite a lot of money,” he said.
He added people used to see recyclers in a positive light. But every news about plastic waste imports now invited a slew of negative comments and insults.
“We are the recycling industry. People call us ‘orang sampah’ (trash collectors) (because of the illegal factories). We are ‘sampah’ (trash),” he said.
The trash at home
Malaysia responded to the garbage deluge by tightening regulations on who can import what waste, putting in 19 criteria that importers need to satisfy before they can get a licence to import. They also started requiring containers carrying specific waste to be scanned and cracking down on illegal factories, among others.
Despite the actions, the impact of the 2018/2019 plastic waste influx is still being felt and will be felt for some time.
Mageswari, who is also SAM’s honorary secretary, cautioned the illegal operators were not done, warning the public to remain vigilant to preserve the environment. Like the trash the operators brought in, some of them remained in Malaysia.
“When the government was taking action in Selangor, these factories were moving elsewhere. They went to Penang, Sungai Petani (Kedah),” she said.
And the trash is not just the abandoned ones in Pulau Indah and other sites. The 17,000 tonnes of plastic in Jenjarom are still present in the dirt today.
Bernama visited the site of the illegal dump and recycling factory with some local activists. According to community activist Tan Ching Hin, the landowner had not removed all the plastic materials before seeding the area with grass, which is now thigh-high and has taken over much of the soil. Embedded deep within are pieces of plastic packaging with instructions written in Spanish on it.
“Some plastic materials will break down into micro plastics and wash out, and then we will eat it,” said Wong, pointing out the stream running near the dump site.
“Problem now is how to clean it up,” she added.
There is little the local councils — usually tasked with removal and clean up of abandoned plastic — can do about the leftover plastic in Jenjarom now. But it’s a different matter in Pulau Indah. They would have to take the responsibility for removing and cleaning the premises there.
“In many cases, we undertook to carry out the cleaning up work. But oftimes, people took advantage of the situation. Cleaning up costs are not cheap,” said MPK’s Zaireezal.
He said the cost of removing, disposing of and cleaning up after the abandoned plastic trash, is estimated at RM10,000 for 30 tonnes — not something they can afford to do often.
Selangor state councillor for Local Government, Public Transport and New Village Development Ng Sze Han told Bernama in an email, the public should lodge a complaint to all relevant authorities if they encountered any environmental violation.
“The state does not allow waste to be abandoned,” he said.
For the future, no one wants a repeat of 2018/2019 or anymore abandoned imported plastic waste. But experts have different ideas on how to get there.
“As for Selangor, we have reiterated many times that we do not support the policy which allows the import of plastic waste. The stand is, each country is supposed to be responsible for their own waste,” said Ng.
Environmentalists agreed, saying developed countries should be able to recycle their own waste before looking at developing countries for solutions.
Others, including the Malaysian government, say current legislation is enough as they cannot stop importing plastic waste as the local recycling industry — which prefers industrial plastic waste and not municipal plastic waste — needs more than what the domestic market can provide. According to the World Bank, the industry contributed US$7.23 billion (RM30.4 billion) to the national economy in 2018.
The government is also investing in a circular green economy, recently launching a plastic roadmap, which aims to have 100 per cent recyclability of plastic packaging by 2030 among other things.
Whichever path the country takes in the future, the most important thing to consider is the effect plastics will have on every aspect of everyone’s lives.
“What is the impact of all this waste on our land, our groundwater? I think it’s a pretty big problem in Malaysia,” said Wong. — Bernama