Malaysia has cracked down on foreign recycling waste coming into the country.
This waste is imported from other countries that have a waste recycling system, but don’t have the facilities and/or financial means to properly recycle the waste they collect. They therefore send their waste overseas to countries with cheap labor cost, like Malaysia, to suposedly recycle their waste.
The waste is handled by private companies that make money with the import of this trash that is to be recycled. But, due to lucrative financial incentives and high-levels of non-recyclable materials in the recycling waste, these companies often times simply (illegally) dump the waste received in landfills and the ocean.
The Malaysian government has identified garbage from the UK, the US, Japan, China, Canada, France, Germany, Singapore, Bangladesh, Saudi-Arabia, the Netherlands and Spain, and has started sending this waste back to the countries it originates from, following other countries like Thailand and the Philippines that have implemented similar measures.
China is no longer having it
For years China was the biggest importer of waste for the whole world, taking in 50% of recycling materials and 70% of electronic waste. But with the last decades of exponential growth and increased population wealth, it can now barely handle its own trash. China has thus tightened the restrictions on recyclable waste imported to such an extend that most countries exporting their garbage there can no longer do so anymore.
This trend has exposed great flaws in our global waste management systems. Most countries in the global north don’t have the infrastructure necessary to recycle their own waste, despite having encouraged all sorts of related measures and boasted about their recycling schemes.
Not being able to send their waste to China, many have started incinerating their recycling waste instead. The incineration facilities used are not made for handling recycling waste, and are heavily polluting the surrounding air and environment.
A far easier solution has also been sought by many: to simply ship their waste elsewhere.
The huge incentives behind (illegal) recycling practices
Instead of tightening the rules for recycling, developing the recycling infrastructure necessary, and cutting back on single-use plastics, the waste problem has just been diverted away from China and in to other countries.
The months that followed the shutdown of China’s waste heaven, saw a spike in recycling, toxic and electronic waste being sent to Laos, Cambodia, Indonesia, Philippines and Thailand.
These countries were already taking in recycling waste beforehand, but cannot cope with the huge increase of garbage that followed the China ban, and lack the environmental laws and resources to control this (illegal) waste dump crisis.
This waste import has largely been unregulated until now, as it is private companies that are in charge of these operations. As already stated, they make money handling the waste that they then process in countries like Malaysia.
Since the (often corrupt and unethical) trade many times contains high levels of toxic materials, or waste that is non-recyclable (misslabeled), the companies often resort to (illegally) disposing the waste, turning villages and rural areas into dump sites.
All this while the originating countries take zero responsibility and accountability over where their garbage ends up, even daring to pat themselves on the shoulder for how “green” they are.
In the case of Malaysia there was a triple increase of imported trash in the first three months after China’s recycling waste ban. With thousands of tons of illegal foreign waste being imported by private companies with malicious intentions, Malaysians now fear their air, water and ground becoming polluted by the crap of others.
Our recycling waste thus has become a ludicrous business with hardly any positive outcomes for anyone, besides the companies that make huge profits (unethically) and the governments (dishonestly) hailing their own sustainable efforts.
Rethinking our efforts
If you have always thought, like we once used to, that recycling is a good enough solution for the waste you produce, think again.
The recycling infrastructure in most countries in the world is just too limited to handle with the waste we produce at the moment. Thus, only 9% of waste in the world is recycled. The rest finds its way to landfills, (illegal and toxic) incinerators, the oceans and (illegal) dump sites in countries, such as Malaysia.
Clearly, our waste management systems are broken.
It is truly sad that these countries (mainly from the global north) are not able to handle their own crap, but what is worse, is how they shamelessly abuse and contaminate other peoples’ water, land and air, in the process.
And this issue is only going to increase as consumerism runs rampant, and more people get exposed to the “convenience” of packaged foods and drinks, the obsession of constantly acquiring the latest electronics, and many other wasteful standards of modern day living.
It will become unavoidable and extremely necessary to start implementing an expansive recycling infrastructure and deposit scheme all over the world. But this alone will not be enough.
Should you recycle?
Of course! We’re not trying to tell you to give up on recycling at all. But the reality is that, even in a situation where our waste management systems function the way they should, recycling is a step in the right direction but NOT an end goal in itself.
We really need to reduce our depletion of resources and stop contaminating our planet as much. And the effort has to come from all angles; from governments, corporations, and each and everyone of us.
As individuals the most powerful step we can take – apart from informing ourselves about this issue – is to analyse what waste we generate, and cut back on it as much as possible. We also need to start demanding better policies and practices from our governments. And should definitely shift our support from big corporations that contaminate our world for their own (astronomical) profits, to ethical and sustainable companies that are truly making an effort to do better.
All the photographs were taken in the Perhentian Islands, Malaysia.