Many countries in Europe and North America have picked up a dirty habit of sending their recyclable trash to lower-income countries in East Asia. It's cheap, it frees up space in their landfill sites, and – rather cynically – it helps them to meet recycling targets.
But in a bid to buck this trend, Malaysia has sent back 150 shipping containers full of illegally shipped recyclable waste back to a number of high-income countries.
Since October 2019, Malaysia’s environment ministry has “repatriated” 150 containers, with approximately 3,737 metric tonnes of plastic waste, that were illegally brought into the country from developed countries.
Forty-three containers were sent back to France, 42 to the UK, 17 to the US, 11 to Canada, and a number of others were sent to Spain, Hong Kong, Singapore, and Japan, according to a post on Twitter by Yeo Bee Yin, the country's environment and science minister. A further 110 containers are scheduled to be sent back by the middle of 2020, at least 60 of those going to the US.
The whole plan shouldn't cost Malaysia a single penny, either.
“We do not want to be the garbage bin of the world,” Yeo Bee Yin said in a Facebook post.
“The repatriation exercise does not have any cost implication to the government. The costs were either borne by the exporters or by the shipping liners. This is an unprecedented move by Malaysia,” she added.
Malaysia is not the only nation to take a stand. Indonesia, the Philippines, and a number of other East Asian countries have returned unwanted waste over the past year. In one of the biggest moves, China introduced a policy in early 2018 that permanently banned the import of most plastic waste. At the time, China was the largest importer of waste plastics, accounting for up to 56 percent of the global market.
Unfortunately, all of this only highlights the deep problems that exist within the global plastic recycling industry.
China’s crackdown on the import of plastic waste potentially resulted in millions of tons of displaced plastic trash, according to a study in the journal Science Advances. As a result of the ban, cities across the US and elsewhere were suddenly overwhelmed with their own plastic trash, which ended up piling high in their landfill sites.
Even if you're conscientious about recycling your plastic waste, there’s a shockingly high chance it can be mismanaged. In 2018, up to 78 percent of plastic waste exports by the US were sent to countries with waste “mismanagement rates” greater than 5 percent, according to the Plastic Pollution Coalition. In other words, around 157,000 shipping containers of plastic waste are annually sent from the US to countries that are known to be overwhelmed. Here, much of the plastic is not properly recycling and potentially contributes to plastic pollution in the ocean.