Malaysia Is Sending Trash Back to the Countries That Created It

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Malaysia claims much of the trash was dumped in the country illegally. Augustine Bin Jumat/

There's a special delivery on its way to the doorsteps of some of the world's richest and most wasteful nations. And it will probably seem sickeningly familiar.

After all, the more than 3,000 tons of trash Malaysia is sending to the U.K., Australia, Japan and the U.S. originated in those countries in the first place.

The garbage — mostly recyclable plastic — is heading back home in the wake of Malaysia's decision to crack down on waste it claims is illegally dumped in the country.

"These containers were illegally brought into the country under false declaration and other offences which clearly violates our environmental law," Yeo Bee Yin, minister of energy, technology, science, environment and climate change, told reporters this week.

Malaysia is hoping those "special deliveries" draw attention to a real problem among the world's richest countries: There's something rotten in the state of waste management.

"We are urging developed nations to review their management of plastic waste and stop shipping garbage to developing countries," Yeo said. "If you ship to Malaysia, we will return it back without mercy."

Overflowing waste bins
Malaysia just doesn't have the space for other countries' waste problems. Augustine Bin Jumat/

But Malaysia isn't the only country that refuses to be a dumpster for wealthier Western countries. And some countries, like the Philippines, promise even less mercy for international trash dumpers.

Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte recently threatened to declare war on Canada over 1,500 tons of trash he claims was dumped illegally in his country,

The waste — mostly household and electronic garbage — was reportedly earmarked for recycling when it left Canada for the Philippines back in 2014. Since then, the trash, along with relations between the two countries, has only festered.

After recalling the country's diplomats from Canada, Duterte marked the trash — some 69 containers crammed with household waste and electronics — "return to sender."

"Celebrate, because your garbage is coming home," he told local media. "Eat it, if you want to."

The Philippines, with trash woes of its own and precious little space for landfills, has literally, had it up to here, promising to repay any future trash invasion with an invasion of its own — the old-fashioned kind.

"I will declare war," a furious Duterte added.

People picking through a pile of trash in Malaysia.
In Malaysia, picking through open landfills for recyclable trash has become a way of life for poor families. Augustine Bin Jumat/

Part of the problem — besides countries being unable to deal with their own waste — is China's decision in January to refuse recyclable materials from other countries, including the U.S. For decades, the country held the door wide open for garbage from abroad as it made a handsome profit from reprocessing it.

By when the world's top importer of trash closed its doors, many countries soon found themselves overwhelmed. After all, up until January more than 7 million tons of recyclables seemed to almost magically disappear from their shores, thanks to China.

As a result, the U.S. has been burning, rather than recycling, ever-increasing amounts of plastic.

Other countries, like Australia, the U.K. and Canada have turned to smaller Asian countries apparently keen to profit from their mounting waste issues.

But now, it seems, even those nations have had their fill.