Malaysia’s environment minister says the country is sending back contaminated, non-recyclable plastic imports.

By David Walker

Posted on May 22, 2019

Malaysia has begun sending back low-quality, non-recyclable plastic waste imports from developed countries, its environment minister said on Tuesday.

Malaysia, already a major market for plastic waste from rich countries, became an even larger market for it last year after China banned plastic waste imports.

Yeo Bee Yin, Malaysia’s minister of energy, technology, science, climate change and environment, said on Tuesday 21 May that her country would send back an unspecified amount of contaminated and low-quality, non-recyclable plastic scrap to the developed countries that sent it there.

She was quoted as telling the Reuters news agency that “developed countries must be responsible in what they send out”. It is not yet clear how Malaysia’s actions will affect its total imports of plastic waste.

The minister was quoted as saying some plastic waste sent to Malaysia violated international agreements. Malaysia had already returned five containers of smuggled contaminated plastic to its source in Spain, she reportedly said, and more would be sent next week.

Unless they find other countries to take their waste, Malaysia’s announcement will add pressure to rich nations to deal with it domestically, by recycling or placing it in landfill.

Such domestic processing is a positive force in reducing the world’s levels of ocean plastic pollution, as rich nations’ waste-handling systems are much more efficient at capturing and containing it.

Lower income Asian nations, particularly in South-East Asia, have earned money by offering waste sorting facilities and dumps to the populations of high-income nations in North America, Western Europe, Australasia and the rich nations of East Asia. That waste has added to the flood of plastic waste generated by the lower income Asian nations themselves.

A study estimated that in 2010, five Asian coastal nations – China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Sri Lanka – accounted for more than half of the world’s mismanaged plastic waste.

Malaysia’s crack down on low-quality waste will add to the pressure on recycling and landfill facilities of rich nations such as Australia and the United States. Plastics are difficult and expensive to recycle, but recycling is unpopular with sections of the community. European nations often incinerate plastic waste, with unclear environmental effects.

Around 180 countries reached a deal last Friday to improve regulation of the global plastic waste trade and make it more transparent.