Malaysia vows to send plastic waste back to countries of origin

returned plastic
© Minister of Energy, Science, Technology, Environment and Climate Change (MESTECC), Yeo Bee Yin (C) shows samples of plastics waste shipment to be returned. (Photo: MOHD RASFAN/AFP/Getty Images)

Environment minister called waste importers 'traitors' who don't care about the country's long-term sustainability.

It all started last month, when the Philippines ordered Canada to take back 69 shipping containers filled with Canadian trash that had been sitting in port for six years. Now Malaysia has followed suit, announcing that it will be shipping out 450 metric tonnes of plastic trash to its countries of origins.

The Malay Mail cites Yeo Bee Yin, the minister of energy, science, technology, environment, and climate change, who said the waste came from countries as diverse as the United Kingdom, the United States, Bangladesh, Saudi Arabia, Japan, Canada, and China. Not all blame is being laid upon foreign nations, however; the minister is also pointing her finger at the Malaysian importers who brought it in:

"Malaysia won’t continue to be a dumping ground for the developed nations and those responsible for destroying our ecosystem with these illegal activities are traitors. We view the perpetrators of this act as traitors to the country’s sustainability and therefore they should be stopped and brought to justice."

These "traitors", Yeo said, will have to pay the cost of returning the garbage to the countries from which it came, and the names of the "so-called recycling companies" from abroad will be given to their respective governments, with the expectation that further action will be taken.

When the press was invited to look inside the containers, a mess of mixed materials was found, including 'clean' recyclables hiding dirty, non-recyclable materials behind them – a way of getting them out of a country that doesn't want to deal with them.

Malaysia has rapidly become a dumping ground for plastic trash, ever since China closed its doors to plastic waste imports in January 2018. Numerous 'recycling' factories have sprung up, many illegally and without operating licenses or oversight, and there have been many complaints about environmental damage. From an article I wrote earlier this year:

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."

Yeo Bee Yin is sending a refreshingly clear signal to the developed world that it's time they took care of their own trash, that it's no longer acceptable to offshore it to less-regulated nations that have even less infrastructure and fewer regulations to deal with it.

Her stance is directly linked to the recent amendment of the Basel Convention (which the U.S. did not sign). It states that exporters must "obtain the consent of receiving countries before shipping most contaminated, mixed, or unrecyclable plastic waste, providing an important tool for countries in the Global South to stop the dumping of unwanted plastic waste into their country."

The Malay Mail says that, "by year’s end, a total of 3,000 metric tonnes of waste from approximately 50 containers worth of garbage will be shipped back once inspections are complete."

Governments taking back their shipping containers should take a long, hard look at what's inside and get to work mandating alternatives. Put the onus back on manufacturers of products to come up with better ways to wrap and store things; it's not impossible. All that's needed is the impetus to invest in R&D, and with Malaysia's recent announcement, it looks like we've got it.

Malaysia vows to send plastic waste back to countries of origin
Environment minister called waste importers 'traitors' who don't care about the country's long-term sustainability.

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