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‘Garbage is traded under the pretext of recycling’

It has been all over the news this week: Malaysia’s announcement to send back 3 000 tonnes of low quality plastic scrap to countries of origin proves that more countries across south-east Asia will follow China’s ever-stricter import policy.

Malaysia was the largest importer of plastic waste in the world last year after China’s ban on mixed scrap imports, including plastics and paper.
But Malaysia is not a dumping site for contaminated plastics from the rest of the world, the country’s environment minister Yeo Bee Yin told the television cameras. ‘Garbage is traded under the pretext of recycling,’ she said. ‘Malaysians are forced to suffer poor air quality due to open burning of plastics which leads to health hazard, polluted rivers, illegal landfills and a host of other related problems.’

‘No mercy’

The minister announced that 60 containers of illegal plastic waste will be returned to the country of origin. ‘If you export it to us, we will immediately send it back without any mercy,’ she warned. Five ships have already been sent back to Spain.
South-east Asian countries increased their share of plastic waste imports after China banned imports of certain recycled materials in early 2018. But Malaysia, Vietnam, Thailand and Indonesia have now been overloaded with waste and there is not enough capacity to process these growing volumes.

Standards needed

Yeo called for a standardised labelling system that differentiates between high and low quality plastic scraps. ‘This is not only our problem, it is all around the world,’ she said. ‘If they don’t come to south-east Asia they will go to Africa, everywhere.’ An international treaty on plastics is required, she believes.

Malaysia’s move to return containers is supported by the recent Basel Convention treaty change from 2021 to stop mixed and contaminated plastic waste movements around the globe.  Malaysia plans to send 3 000 tonnes of illegally imported plastic waste back to the countries of origin. Fourteen source countries have been traced and they can expect their plastic waste back shortly.

Yeo says countries think their waste is recycled but that is often not the case. It is often simply dumped or taken to a landfill, contaminating the soil and water. Plastic that is not suitable for recycling is also burned on open sites, which releases toxic substances.

This month, 180 countries in the Basel Convention agreed to better regulate the processing of plastic waste. The United States, the largest exporter of plastic waste, has not previously signed such agreements and is not planning to participate.

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