News & Events

Managing the plastic aftermath

Plastic waste is plaguing countries around the world and Malaysia is no exception. MALAYSIA SME ® exclusive interview with Energy, Science, Technology, Environment and Climate Change Minister Yeo Bee Yin touches on the rampant problem and solutions for a cleaner environment

Apart from the low return value the whole process will damage multiple aspects of the environment. That’s why the government wants to shut down illegal operations.”
— Yeo

Over the years countries including the United States and UK have largely depended on the Asian region to dispose of their plastic waste with China alone bearing the brunt of 45% of the world’s total plastic waste

However, in December 2017, China put a stop to the practice by placing a ban on the import of plastic waste into the country, resulting in millions of tonnes of displaced plastic waste landing up in neighbouring countries.

It really isn’t a surprise that the ban came into force but the lingering question is what will happen to the rest of the plastic waste that is already filling up landfills everywhere else?

In 2018, it was reported that Malaysia took in over 750,000 metric tonnes of plastic waste imports (valued at over RM483 million) from over 19 countries, with the US, Britain and Japan being the highest exporters (accounting for 54% of plastic waste imports from January to July 2018). Countries like Germany, Hong Kong, Australia, Belgium, Saudi Arabia, Romania, Spain and France were some of those 19 countries.

The RM30 billion plastic waste processing industry cannot be ignored, especially when most of the waste is turning up on local shores. According to the United Nations’ trade database and the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries, US sent over 178,238 metric tonnes of plastic waste to Malaysian shores between January and July last year. That amount is nearly twice as much as that sent to Thailand, which is currently the second top destination Additionally, Britain was reported to have sent a quarter of its total waste to Malaysia, which is also more than what was received by any other country.

“Currently, the plastic waste business worldwide is worth RM30 billion, while the plastic recycling industry is worth about RM3 billion,” says Minister of Energy, Science, Technology, Environment and Climate Change (MESTECC) Yeo Bee Yin in an exclusive interview with MALAYSIA SME®.

According to Yeo, in July 2018, the Malaysian government placed a temporary ban (more commonly known as a blanket ban) on the import of plastic waste coming into the country. Despite the ban, there is still the issue of the leftover plastic waste material that has already made it on local shores. “What we’re dealing with right now is the aftermath of the great influx of plastic waste after China’s ban. We now have about 750,000 metric tonnes of waste to dispose of,” Yeo adds.

Legal vs. illegal factories
The huge amount of plastic waste has resulted in factories mushrooming all over the country, while some are legal most of them are not, she observes. In January, it was reported that the government successfully closed down a total of 65 illegally operating plastic manufacturing factories, with the target of getting the number up to 100 by the end of the first quarter of 2019.

“It’s not enough to just close them down or shut off the electricity because they just move their base of operations somewhere else. So we are also using the National Land Code. We’re going to make it mandatory for land owners to ensure that the factories they rent their land to will dispose plastic rubbish responsibly. If not, we will have to confiscate their land,” Yeo goes on.

Most of the illegally operating plants are run by foreign workers who come into the country without proper paperwork. There aren’t many local workers in operations like this since it is very labour intensive. Apart from cutting the power supply, the raids done by MESTECC and the government also involves the Immigration Department to deport foreign workers after the factories close down. These factories have been breaking multiple laws and codes of conduct simultaneously.

“When they don’t have a valid licence for the factory they are going against local council laws. When these factories dispose of the waste using improper methods, it causes various types of pollution to the air, water and soil of the surrounding area which is contrary to the Environmental Quality Act. By employing illegal foreign workers, they are also going against immigration laws,” states Yeo, adding most of the illegally operating factories are relatively new.

The situation deteriorated after China’s ban of plastic waste importation. “Before the ban in 2017, we did not have a serious illegal recycling problem. After the ban, the plastic feedstock that started coming in was very contaminated. Although it can still be recycled, it will not be commercially feasible,” she explains.

Recycling contaminated feedstock is not a very profitable business, which is why illegal factories are still willing to do the job despite the low monetary return. “Apart from the low return value the whole process will damage multiple aspects of the environment. That’s why the government wants to shut down illegal operations,” says Yeo, adding the local government is keeping an eye on the issue.

Believing that Malaysia will soon find a solution to the issue, Yeo says it is crucial to have a international convention on plastic scrap as well as an international tracking system to keep track on where it ends up.

The minister has already begun discussions on establishing a tracking system for plastics and hazardous material which will follow certain protocols such as labeling.

“When I was in Singapore (in mid-January 2019), I brought up the need to have a Convention on International Hazardous Material Movement, that’s when the Environmental Minister of Pakistan said his country was also facing the same problem after China’s ban. They have also blocked the plastic waste from coming in, but they are also facing issues with disposing the remaining still in the country,” Yeo continues.