‘We won’t be your garbage dump’: Malaysia sends back tonnes of plastic waste to rich countries

Kate Ng
A container is filled with plastic waste from Australia, in Port Klang, Malaysia: AP
A container is filled with plastic waste from Australia, in Port Klang, Malaysia: AP

Malaysia has repatriated 3,737 metric tonnes of plastic waste to mainly rich countries since the third quarter of 2019, the country’s environment minister said.

The country has successfully shipped out 150 containers of waste following strict enforcement at key Malaysian ports to prevent plastic waste being smuggled into the country and shut down illegal plastic recycling factories.

Environment Minister Yeo Bee Yin told local reporters on Sunday: “If people want to see us as the rubbish dump of the world, you dream on.

“Our position is very firm. We just want to send back (the waste) and we just want to give a message that Malaysia is not the dumping site of the world.”

The containers were destined for their countries of origin, with the highest numbers heading to France, the UK, the US, and Canada.

France was sent back 43 containers of waste, while 42 were returned to the UK, 17 to the US, 11 to Canada, 10 to Spain, and the rest were sent to Hong Kong, Japan, Singapore, China, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Lithuania.

Ms Yeo added Malaysia did not pay to send the containers back, as all costs were borne by importers and shipping lines, reported local news site Free Malaysia Today.

“It is not about money, but dignity. We are not supposed to pay them to send it back. We do not want to pay a single cent,” she said.

According to her ministry, there are still 110 containers of waste waiting to be shipped back to their countries of origin, including 60 containers destined for the US.

Plastic waste from abroad became a problem for Malaysia and other Southeast Asian countries after China banned all plastic imports in 2018.

The move by China, called the “National Sword” policy, was aimed at easing the burden on overwhelmed Chinese processing facilities, which initially handled nearly half of the world’s recyclable waste.

European nations that previously exported most of their recyclable waste to China diverted it to Southeast Asian countries including Malaysia, Indonesia and Vietnam.

This led to the opening of illegal processing factories, which the government began cracking down on in early 2018.

Ms Yeo vowed to continue shutting them down and said: “We will continue to close [the illegal factories] again and again. We will see who is more persistent.”

The Malaysian government will launch an action plan on illegal plastic importation next month to help different agencies coordinate enforcement and speed up the process of returning waste, Ms Yeo added.

Simon Ellin, CEO of the Recycling Association, told the Independent: "It's very frustrating that these containters are coming back because it is another case of the industry receiving bad publicity for the indiscretions of a few and we simply have to find ways of stamping out the illegal exports of plastics with blights the market for compliant operators.

"Malaysia, like many other Asian markets, is becoming more and more difficult to export to as their authorities are now issuing significantly fewer licenses for facilities recycling plastics and their customs are paying much more attention the the materials they are receiving - and we wholly welcome this.

"By issuing intelligence to target illegal operators before the materials leave the UK, plus embracing technology to track exports from cradle to grave, we will beat the illegals. We just hope that the actions of the illegal operators don't close the marketplace in the meantime for the compliant operators who form the majority of the export market," he added.

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