Malaysia has had enough. Of the planet’s plastic waste, that is.
The country has started sending back shipments of plastic refuse that rich nations seek to offload by shipping it to poorer nations such as those in Southeast Asia. In a few months Malaysia has returned 150 containers of plastic waste to 13 other countries, including the United States, the United Kingdom, France and Canada. The volume amounted to 3,737 metric tons in total.
The country’s government said it will return another 110 containers full of plastic trash in coming months. It will also shut down some 200 plastic recycling plants that have been operating illegally. “[The] Malaysian government is serious about combating the import of illegal wastes as we do not want to be the garbage bin of the world,” Environment Minister Yeo Bee Yin stressed in a Facebook post
Since China banned the import of plastic waste in 2018, many richer nations have been rerouting shipments of their plastic waste to Southeast Asian countries like Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines. In the first seven months of 2018, Greenpeace found, plastic waste exported to Malaysia from the US more than doubled over the previous year.
Yet in these recipient countries such waste has been taking a toll on the environment and people’s health. Thailand, one of the world’s primary tourist destinations, is becoming “the garbage bin of the world” owing to a steady influx of plastic waste. In 2018 alone an estimated 330,000 tons of plastic waste was imported into Thailand, primarily from Japan, Hong Kong and the United States, according to Greenpeace.
Making matters worse is that these same Southeast Asian countries themselves are among the world’s leading plastic polluters. Just five countries in Southeast Asia produce more marine plastic waste through leakage and outright dumping than the rest of the world combined. One of the worst offenders is Vietnam, a country blessed with a scenic seemingly endless coastline. Yet rising consumption and poor waste management have resulted in vast amounts of plastic waste ending up in the ocean from Vietnam.
“Alongside Viet Nam’s rapid economic development over the past decades, the country’s solid waste generation has also increased consistently at annual rates of around 10%,” the World Economic Forum notes. “Only about 10-15% of collected waste in Viet Nam is reused or recycled; much of the remainder is sent to dump sites and incineration facilities, underlining the necessity of more sustainable approaches to solid waste management in the country.”
What this means is that it won’t be enough for these Southeast Asian countries to stop accepting waste from elsewhere. They will have to tackle their own domestic waste problem too.
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