Malaysia is to return 3,000 tonnes of plastic waste to its countries of origin, after receiving large amounts of material following China’s effective ban on waste imports.
Reuters has reported that, since then, dozens of recycling factories have opened, often without licences, leading to complaints from communities in Malaysia about environmental problems.
The Recycling Association (RA) has warned that such illegal shipments could undermine global legitimate trade in waste plastics.
Yeo Bee Yin, minister of energy, technology, science, environment and climate change, said 60 containers of illegally imported waste would be sent back to at least 14 countries from which it arrived, including the UK.
She said: “These containers were illegally brought into the country under false declaration and other offences, which clearly violates our environmental law.”
Yeo said a recycling company based in the UK had exported 50,000 tonnes of plastic waste to Malaysia in the past two years, but did not identify the firm concerned.
“We are urging developed nations to review their management of plastic waste and stop shipping garbage to developing countries,” she said. “If you ship to Malaysia, we will return it back without mercy.”
Philippines president Rodrigo Duterte last week said his government would hire a private shipping company to send 69 containers of waste back to Canada, which he threatened to leave in its territorial waters if the authorities there refused to accept them.
Canada said the waste, exported between 2013-14, was a commercial transaction.
The RA said news that Malaysia is returning containers of materials to the UK and other countries showed the need for ”joined-up thinking” to achieve a high-quality product for use by both UK and export recyclers.
Chief executive Simon Ellin said: “We are entering very difficult waters here. From the photos I have seen of the material that is being sent back to countries around the world, it looks like mixed supermarket films that are collected from kerbside collection schemes by local authorities.
“These particular materials are so variable and difficult to separate and recycle that we have a stark choice now of whether to stop collecting them altogether or we move the material down the waste hierarchy and incinerate them while recovering the energy.”
Ellin said the RA was against illegal exports of general waste rubbish and poor-quality materials to other nations, and said its ’Quality First’ campaign had been launched three years ago to push for materials to meet the legal specifications of the importing country.
“We shouldn’t let a minority of companies that operate in violation of international and domestic laws undermine the legitimate trade of a secondary commodity,” he said.
“Malaysia has itself acknowledged the benefits to its manufacturing sector of importing recyclable materials that can be turned into new products. If we send these high-quality secondary commodities to UK, European or Asian recyclers, we are often sending them back to the location or country where they were first manufactured to be turned into new products.”
Ellin added that the proposed UK plastics tax would require a global trade system so manufacturers could import products with this recycled plastic content.
Writing for MRW’s forthcoming June issue, David Wilson, managing director of Vanden UK, said Malaysia was still open to legitimate exporters of secondary plastic for recycling there, and that with China, India, Indonesia and Thailand all banning import of plastics for recycling – or making it much more difficult – it would be vital to the UK that the Malaysian market stayed open.
Wilson wrote: “But some companies are trying to cheat the system and send low-value plastics into the country.
“The Malaysian government revealed that it has inspected containers of low-value plastics that are labelled 3920, which is the HS code for other plates, sheets, film and foil strips.
“This is an attempt to smuggle low-value plastics into the country, pretending they are types of plastic products. These were coming from the UK, US, Australia and Germany, according to Malaysia’s ministry of energy, science, technology, environment and climate change.”
He said Malaysia had increased inspections and discussed the eventual ban of all imports of recycled plastics, although it recognised the economic benefit of plastic recycling.