Malaysia Is Floundering in a Sea of American Plastic

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CC BY 2.0. ePi.Longo

The rapid growth in illegal recycling operations has led to rampant pollution that's angering citizens.

It has been one year since China closed its doors to the world's plastic waste. Prior to the ban, China had accepted 70 percent of the United States' recyclable materials and two-thirds of the UK's, but suddenly these countries have had to scramble to find alternative destinations for all the waste that they were unable (and unwilling) to process at home.

One of the recipients of American plastic trash is Malaysia. In the first ten months of 2017 it imported more than 192,000 metric tons — a 132 percent jump from the year before. An article in the Los Angeles Times describes the changes that Malaysians have seen, and it isn't pretty.

There is decent money to be made from processing 'clean' hard plastic scrap, such as laptop shells, electricity meters, desktop phones, and such. These are "crushed into pellets and resold to manufacturers, mostly in China, to make cheap clothing and other synthetic products."

But dirty low-grade scrap is more problematic. The LA Times article describes this as "soiled food packaging, tinted bottles, single-use plastic bags that China has rejected, and that requires too much processing to be recycled cheaply and cleanly." Many Malaysian recyclers, most of which are operating without a government license to handle waste, opt instead to landfill or burn these items, filling the air with a chemical-infused stench that concerns many residents.

Lay Peng Pua, a chemist who lives in a town called Jenjarom, said the air often smells like burning polyester. She and a group of volunteers launched formal complaints and eventually managed to get 35 illegal recycling operations shut down, but the victory is bittersweet: "About 17,000 metric tons of waste was seized, but is too contaminated to be recycled. Most of it is likely to end up in a landfill."

What's sadly ironic is that Malaysia has no recycling system for its own trash, which means that the entire recycling industry in the country, worth $7 billion, depends on imports. At the same time, the country has pledged to eliminate single-use plastics by 2030.

Seeing the pictures of trash in Malaysia and hearing about the unhealthy living conditions is sobering, especially when you realize its connection to Western consumption. We in North America and Europe inhabit a fortunate world in which the detritus of our consumerist lives is magically whisked away from view, but we would do well to understand that it's still somewhere out there, in the backyard of a lesser fortunate family.

As long as governments are dragging their feet at implementing much tighter regulations and mandating more eco-friendly packaging, the responsibility lies with us, the shoppers, who need to make choices based on the full life cycle of an item. So, the next time you're considering a new bottle of shampoo or laundry detergent, stop for a moment and picture that container in the hands of a Malaysian trash picker who's being paid very little to sort and grind it. Ask yourself, Is there a better option, with less plastic packaging? Chances are, there is.