Residents of Kuala Langat, Malaysia, first noticed rank-smelling fumes that caused eye, skin, and lung irritations early in 2018. Since then, days and nights have been marked by noxious clouds that force people to shut their windows at all times, according to the BBC.
The fumes, it was soon discovered, were coming from illegal plastic-burning factories that sprouted up in response to Malaysia’s thriving new industry — the importation of junk plastic from Western countries after China banned such imports at the start of 2018.
Last year alone, Malaysia imported 754,000 tons of junk plastic, the BBC notes, most of which began piling up throughout the country. Since it’s extremely difficult and expensive to dispose of soiled, hybrid, and obscure plastics, shady entrepreneurs took shortcuts to turn huge profits, the BBC reports.
Take Action: Protect our Oceans! Prevent Ocean Plastic Pollution
Nice reflection? Think again. It's actually the reflection of large piles of plastic found at an illegal factory in Banting, which has been shut down by Kuala Langat District Council (MDKL).@NewsMPBpic.twitter.com/FkKoxvMUx5— Sarah Abdullah (@sarahNewsMPB) September 25, 2018
Some entrepreneurs buried plastic in pits, while others began burning it.
Soon, dozens of illegal factories were burning plastic, releasing huge amounts of carcinogenic contaminants into the atmosphere.
"I couldn't sleep at night because it was so smelly. I became like a zombie, I was so tired," Ngoo Kwi Hong told the BBC. "It was only later I found out there were factories surrounding my house — north, south, east, west."
It got so bad in Kuala Langat that the government eventually intervened and shut down 33 factories.
You’ve seen exposé of illegal recycling factories that popped up in Kuala Langat in #Malaysia— A Plastic Planet (@aplastic_planet) October 21, 2018
In 2018 Malaysia became UK’s biggest importer of #plasticwaste
Many of the sites in Kuala Langat were surrounded by mountains of plastic waste - a strong chemical stench filled the air pic.twitter.com/e96GEz7sOJ
Read More: The Long, Strange Journey of a Plastic Bag
Now the town is housing 17,000 tons of plastic, 4,000 tons of which sit in a single site.
This burgeoning pollution crisis is emblematic of humanity’s unsustainable reliance on plastic.
Since 1950, humans have created 8.3 billion metric tons of plastic, more than 75% of which has been thrown away, left to contaminate the global environment. Each year, an estimated 8 million metric tons of plastic enter the oceans, causing immense harm to marine life.
At the start of 2018, China’s ban on various kinds of imported plastic went into effect, forcing Western countries to scramble to find a new place to dump their junk. Britain had been sending 2.7 million tons of plastic — two-thirds of what is thrown out in the country — to China annually.
Recycling soiled and obscure types of plastic has environmental consequences that China was no longer willing to tolerate.
Thailand stepped in to fill the gap, but quickly backtracked when it realized the scale of environmental hazards.
Malaysia may soon come to a similar decision and then a deeper reckoning will plastic waste will likely have to take place.