Malaysia returns 42 containers to UK in purge of 'illegal' foreign waste

Nicola Smith
Malaysia has returned 150 containers of foreign waste since late last year - AP

Malaysia has returned 150 containers of plastic waste, including 42 to the UK, since late last year, its environment minister revealed on Monday, warning that the South East Asian nation would not become the “world’s dumpster”.

A total of 3,737 metric tonnes of unwanted waste has been sent to 13 predominantly rich countries including the United States, Canada, Spain and Portugal. The highest number, 43, were transported to France. 

Shipments of rubbish have been redirected to South East Asia since China banned the import of plastic waste in 2018, but Malaysia has joined a growing number of countries, including the Philippines and Indonesia, who are increasingly rejecting the undesired imports. 

“If people want to see us as the rubbish dump of the world, you dream on,” Yeo Bee Yin, the environment minister, told reporters during inspection at a Penang port on Monday. 

“Enforcement action was taken on containers which contained plastic waste imported illegally,” she said, citing the Basel Convention, an international treaty designed to restrict movements of hazardous wastes between nations.

The containers were shipped back to their country of origin via ports in Klang, Penang and Sarawak in what has been the largest operation of its kind in the country’s history. 

Malaysian officials inspect a container before it is returned to its country of origin Credit: AFP

She said the Malaysian government bore none of the costs, with the financial burden of sending the waste back landing fully on shipping liners and importers. In addition, a total of 218 illegal factories receiving the waste have been shut down by the authorities. 

Ms Yeo added that another 110 containers are expected to be sent back by the middle of this year, confirming that talks are underway with the US to accept another 60 of its containers.  Nine from the UK are still being held at Malaysian ports, along with 15 from Canada, 14 from Japan, and eight from Belgium.

In 2018, an investigation by the Telegraph and Unearthed, Greenpeace’s investigative unit, found that British recycling and household waste intended for reprocessing had been dumped openly at Malaysian sites near the capital, Kuala Lumpur. 

The presence of empty recycling bags from five UK councils in a recently closed-down factory prompted concerns that household rubbish was always being processed correctly, and raised questions about how it had entered Malaysia, some 6,000 miles away. It is illegal to send waste that cannot be recycled outside the UK.