Jenjarom, Malaysia: It’s the crisis that no one saw coming. It’s more than a year since China announced a crackdown on what types of recycled waste it would accept for recycling.
The “National Sword” policy turned the global market for plastic waste on its head.
For decades, China hoovered up plastic from around the world that needed to be recycled.
But where once it accepted around 50 per cent of the world’s plastic waste – much of it from the rich, developed countries like Australia – China is now far more picky about what it is accepting for recycling.
The decision has had knock-on effects for the entire world, and perhaps most particularly for Australia’s neighbours in south-east Asia, some of whom have been swamped by a deluge of shipments of plastics to be recycled.
This week, Malaysia called time on wealthy western nations sending plastic waste to it for recycling.
Science, Technology and Environment and Climate Change minister Yeo Bee Yin said her country “will do our very best to ensure that Malaysia not be the plastic rubbish bin of developed countries”.
From January to June, before Malaysia froze the importing of plastic waste, Malaysia had received 195 million kilograms from the US, 104 million kilograms from Japan, 95 million kilograms from the UK and 34 million kilograms from Australia (the minister initially claimed the figures were in tonnes, and subsequently corrected herself).
“I am calling out to these countries and other countries too, we have a problem. We have to solve our own waste [problems] in our own backyard. It’s a message we wish to convey internationally. [And] it is not only plastic waste, but also e-waste.”
Fairfax Media visited a number of plastic waste recycling factories in Jenjarom, in the Kuala Langat district of Selangor state – some of which have been operating illegally, and recently been shut down – and in nearby Port Klang, to see first hand where some of Australia’a household plastic waste has ended up.
At site after site, huge piles of plastic rubbish sat stacked two or three metres high – perhaps dozens of tonnes waiting to be recycled, much of it not stored properly.
Household recycling waste from Australia was clearly littered through out the mountains of garbage.
A gutter ran through one of the sites, to drain the water used to wash the plastic before it was recycled – and emptied into a local river, poisoning the eco-system
Locals are furious.
One Jenjarom resident, who lives only 400 metres from one of the illegal plastic waste recycling factories – and who asked Fairfax Media not to use her name – joined local NGO called Persatuan Tindakan Alam Sekitar Kuala Langat (Environment Act of Kuala Langat) after she became sick, to help try to shut down the factories in her area.
“For months since I couldn’t sleep, I had no energy, fatigue, I felt weak all day, I couldn’t figure out why. But every time I left my home to go to another area, I felt a bit better. At the time, even though I sometimes smell the plastic burning at night, I just figured somebody in the neighbourhood was burning their garbage,” she said.
“Then in January a neighbour told me about a factory around the corner from my home. He was complaining about the smell of the garbage. But I realised then that the toxic fumes from melting the plastic was the reason behind my health problems. I have engineering background, I knew the processes, I knew then the reason why I was sick all the time.”
That’s when this Jenjarom resident took up the fight against plastic recycling in her area. And she wasn’t alone.
Daniel Tay, another local who sits on a school advisory board in Jenjarom, said locals were very concerned about all the factories in the area.
“Our school is just around the corners from these factories. My home is in the area, my family, our students homes, we need to stop it. We need to fight it.”
And Lee Chee Kwang, a local lawyer who has also joined the NGO, is blunt: “we want it to stop, period, all of it, no importing wastes, it is not worth the price we have to pay, the damages to our environment”.
Ng Sze Han, a member of Selangor State Executive Council, says the local government began shutting down illegal recycling factories in the area in July.
Thirty-four have been shut down in the area while 13 legal recycling factories are still operating, he says.
Mr Han says the local government has located the land owners of the illegal factories – but crucially, not the operators of those illegal factories.
One of the big challenges remaining is what to do with the dozens of tonnes of plastic waste that has now in effect been abandoned.
“From what I can see, there are two possibilities. One is for legal factories to recycle it, the second is to send it to legal landfill. The question is who will bear the cost?”
Local councils across Australia have struggled to cope with the Chinese policy shift. Some plastic waste, which would have been recycled, is now piling up around the country or being dumped in landfills.
According to the Australian Plastics Recycling Survey, commissioned by Australian federal and state governments, in 2016–17 Australians consumed a total 3,513,100 tonnes of plastics.
Of that, 415,200 tonnes – including tyre plastics – was recycled with about 180,100 tonnes reprocessed in Australia and 235,100 tonnes sent overseas for reprocessing.
It’s not only Malaysia that has become a dumping ground for plastic and paper waste products since China tightened its rules.
Australian Council of Recycling chief executive Pete Shmigel says Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam have all also been accepting waste for recycling in larger and larger volumes from Australia and other rich nations.
And that needs to stop, he says.
Plastic is an internationally traded commodity. When a household in Sydney or Melbourne place an empty milk bottle or an soft drink can in the recycling bin, that waste is fed into a global supply chain.
Some of the higher quality plastics are worth enough money are recycled in Australia but much of it is also sold overseas – from council, to waste collection contractor, to a broker who sells it on the global market, and sends it on overseas.
But Australia should be following the “proximity principle” and dealing with its own recycling waste at home, Mr Shmigel says.
“The moment we find ourselves in – as a result of the Chinese decision – this is a wake up call. Recycling takes place in a global context,” he says.
Mr Shmigel argues that the right policies are simply not in place in Australia to encourage the recycling to happen at home.
David Hodge, the owner of Australian recycling firm Plastic Forests, says “the biggest source of plastic is from households, it’s rigid plastics. Meat trays, milk bottles, shampoo bottles etc – they get collected and exported”.
“Soft flexible plastics used by industry for wrapping that comes from the Woolworths, Coles and Bunnings of this world, the big retailers, they have been doing the right thing, collecting and bailing it, having firms collect it,” he says.
Mr Hodge is blunt about what needs to happen: “We should stop sending waste overseas. I think we have to deal with our own waste at home, we can’t expect a country with lesser economic means than us to fix our problems”.
State and federal governments have recently announced a plan to make all packaging recyclable, reusable or compostable by 2025. But the plan is just part of the solution.
And while local and national government in Malaysia is acting to stop the importation and processing of plastic waste, countries like Australia still need to work out how it is going to process and recycle the big volumes of plastic waste generated by households every year.
As Mr Hodge says, sending it to Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam and Indonesia is simply not the answer to Australia’s problems.