Malaysia will send back over 3,000 metric tons of contaminated, non-recyclable plastic waste to their countries of origin, environment minister Yeo Bee Yin said on Tuesday.
"Malaysia will not be a dumping ground to the world ... We will fight back. Even though we are a small country, we can't be bullied by developed countries,” she told reporters.
Yeo said 60 containers of contaminated waste were illegally smuggled into the country, and discovered on their way to illegal plastic recycling plants. Ten containers will be shipped back to their countries in the next two weeks, she added.
During a press conference, Yeo displayed the waste found in the containers. The items included cables, contaminated milk cartons, compact discs, and other electronic and household waste. While Malaysia processes plastic in its recycling facilities, items such as these cannot be recycled. The waste in question came from the US, UK, Canada, Australia, Bangladesh, Japan, Saudi Arabia, and China.
However, Yeo said the waste from China likely originated from other countries, like France, and had been diverted to Malaysia after China’s ban on imported plastic waste went into effect last year.
Since China banned the import of plastic waste in an effort to clean up its environment, Malaysia has become one of a number of developing countries, including Thailand, Vietnam, and Indonesia, now receiving the world's trash.
"This is probably just the tip of the iceberg [due] to the banning of plastic waste by China," Yeo said.
In the first seven months of 2018, the volume of plastic waste exported to Malaysia from the US reached more than twice that of the previous year.
Yeo said that in the past two years alone, a UK-based recycling company exported more than 1,000 containers holding 55,000 tons of plastic waste to the small country. Five containers were already shipped back to Spain earlier this month after being discovered at a port in Malaysia, she said.
"We urge the developed countries to review their management of plastic waste and stop shipping the garbage out to the developing countries," Yeo added.
Malaysia’s announcement of its firm stance against importing non-recyclable plastic comes soon after the Philippines demanded that Canada take back the non-recyclable waste that it had been exporting to the Southeast Asian nation for years.
The trend of developing countries refusing to accept foreign waste has highlighted the global scale of the plastic pollution problem. On May 10, more than 180 governments also agreed to add plastic to the Basel Convention, which regulates the international movement of hazardous waste.
“It is the right move by the Malaysian government, to show to the world that we are serious in protecting our borders from becoming a dumping ground,” Mageswari Sangaralingam, research officer at Consumers Association of Penang and Friends of the Earth Malaysia, told the Guardian.
This isn’t the first time that the country has attempted to address the issue of importing plastic waste. Zuraida Kamaruddin, Malaysia’s housing minister, announced in October that the country would outlaw imports of all type of plastic by 2021, Reuters reported.
The Malaysian government has also formed a joint task force, which launched on April 24, to combat illegal plastic imports and clamp down on recycling facilities operating without valid licenses and employing disposal methods harmful to the environment. Since last July, the government has shut down more than 150 illegal processing plants.