Malaysia polluted by imported wastes

KUALA LUMPUR (June 7): Just imagine this: plastic milk bottles infested with maggots find their way to Malaysian shores after their contents are consumed by Australians. Also being dumped on our soil are plastic bread wrappers that originate from Canada, Japan and France.  

That’s not all. From the United Kingdom come industrial electric cables disguised as copper while the United States heaps its stacks of damaged electric and electronic cables onto Malaysia.

Plastic cups that were used for drinking zam zam water in Makkah, Saudi Arabia, also end up in this country.

Hundreds of thousands of tonnes of plastic wastes are dispatched to Malaysia every year, part of which is stuck in hundreds of containers that have remained unclaimed in several ports in Malaysia.

Recently, the Royal Malaysian Customs Department in Penang detected 265 containers of plastic wastes that have not been claimed since January this year.

At Westports in Port Kelang, 152 containers believed to be filled with contaminated plastic wastes have also been detected lying unclaimed.

Sources told Bernama that the relevant parties were reluctant to claim the containers for fear that the Ministry of Energy, Science, Technology, Environment and Climate Change would take stern action against them as part of its efforts to restrain other countries from treating Malaysia as a dumping ground for their waste.

Foul smelling, rotting

Why does Malaysia have to take on the burden of disposing of all that foreign garbage, most of which are shipped from developed countries?

Apparently, both the exporters and importers involved label their consignments as “waste for recycling”. The reality, however, is very different as the bulk of the imported waste materials is not fit for recycling.

According to the sources, not all the waste materials that enter this country come in hygienic conditions as should be the case; on the contrary, they reek with the stench of rotting garbage and are infested with worms.

One source said it was obvious that the recycling companies importing the waste were willing to turn a blind eye to the environmental pollution they were causing as a result of separating, cleaning, burning and disposing of the plastic waste that cannot be recycled.

“The ‘reward’ they get is only 60 sen for each kilogramme of waste that is supposedly processed,” said the source.

The source said even if the waste is recyclable, it has to be separated first and then cleaned thoroughly which would require plenty of resources such as clean water.

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“Waste that cannot be recycled will end up being burnt in the open which can lead to cancer-causing toxic fumes being released into the environment, like what happened in Jenjarom (Selangor) recently.”

Malaysia’s soil and waterways also face threats from pollution during the cleaning process when the water from the waste seeps into the ground.

“In some cases, the waste is dumped on abandoned land or in the forest and left there,” said the source.

Illegal factories

The sources said the situation worsens when recycling companies without their own waste processing premises hand over this task to factories that operate illegally all over the country, especially in areas located close to the ports.

“Selangor is among the States that have many illegal factories. Despite taking action such as closing down their premises and producing them in court, the owners (of the illegal factories) easily find new places to operate from,” said the source.

In its efforts to check environmental pollution, the Ministry of Energy, Science, Technology, Environment and Climate Change has ordered 148 illegal plastic recycling plants to cease operations between January and April this year. These factories include 33 located in Jenjarom that had contravened the Environmental Quality Act 1974.

Since last month, the Ministry has inspected 123 containers carrying solid waste from the United Kingdom, United States, Japan, China, Spain, Canada, Australia, the Netherlands, Germany, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, Bangladesh, Norway and France. These containers gained entry into Malaysia via approved permits (AP) issued by the National Solid Waste Management Department.

Sixty of the containers, filled with 3,000 tonnes of plastic waste, will be shipped back to the country of origin after thorough inspections by the authorities.  

Energy, Science, Technology, Environment and Climate Change Minister Yeo Bee Yin said 10 out of the 60 containers would be dispatched to the country of origin within 14 days.

The Ministry had previously ordered five containers of waste to be shipped back to Spain where they originated, she said, adding that the action was taken under Malaysian laws, including the Environmental Quality Act.

Difficult to detect

One of the pressing challenges faced by the Ministry in “repatriating” the imported waste is detecting the country of origin.

There have been instances when a container carrying waste is registered as coming from China but in reality, its contents are from France.

The sources claimed that certain unscrupulous middlemen would alter the Bill of Lading (BL) to confuse the authorities and make it difficult for them to ascertain the container’s country of origin.

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Apparently, in the shipping industry, making alterations to the BL, such as the name of the exporter and country of origin, was a normal practice to “smoothen business transactions”.

The middleman acts as the link between the exporter and importer of the waste and it is his role to tweak the information as desired by his clients so that the consignment lands in the importer’s country.

The sources also said that the practice of not declaring the waste in accordance with the Harmonised Commodity Description and Coding System (HS) has resulted in many plastic waste exporters using the 3920 code, which is meant for solid waste, instead of the 3915 code for plastic waste.

This is because they would require an AP to export plastic waste, so to hasten the export process the plastic waste is exported using the 3920 code which applies to solid waste such as plastic plates, sheets, films and foil strips. Besides plastic waste, the 3915 code also covers pens and scraps.

HS is a global system of classifying products that are traded internationally.

Based on the goings-on in the industry, it is obvious that many people are willing to commit fraudulent acts to gain from the global plastic waste trade that has an estimated annual market value of US$5 billion.

World’s ‘garbage bins’

Southeast Asian countries such as Malaysia, Thailand, the Philippines, Indonesia and Vietnam are known to serve as the world’s “garbage bins” as they receive wastes from several developed countries like the United States, Japan, Germany, Britain, Belgium and Canada.

The situation worsened after China imposed restrictions on the import of recyclable paper and plastic in January 2018.

This resulted in more wastes being diverted to Malaysia. Some 750,000 tonnes of plastic wastes worth more than RM483 million entered this country in 2018, according to the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries.

China’s import of wastes dropped from more than 600,000 tonnes a month in 2016 to 30,000 tonnes a month since January 2018.

Thailand has also taken action to stop the import of plastic waste while Vietnam has introduced tight control pertaining to this matter as it does not want the country to be used as a garbage bin by developed nations.

Recently, Malaysia was among the 187 countries that were signatories to the amendments to the Basel Convention to make global trade in plastic waste more transparent and better regulated. The amendments will be enforced on Jan 1, 2021.

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