- A small town in Malaysia is teeming with nearly 19,000 tons of plastic waste.
- Ever since China banned the import of plastic in 2017, Malaysia has seen an influx of garbage.
- Many illegal factories have taken to burning the scraps, releasing noxious fumes that could threaten human health.
- Malaysia’s environment minister recently told Reuters that nations that shipped garbage to Malaysia would see it returned “without mercy.”
Last summer, a small town in Malaysia grew accustomed to the smell of burning plastic. At night, the putrid scent would waft into homes in Jenjarom, a community of around 30,000 residents.
Today, the fumes have mostly dissipated, but their source – nearly 19,000 tons of waste piled in high heaps – is still around.
After China banned the import of plastic in 2017, Malaysia began buying discarded plastic from China’s former exporters, including the US, UK, and Australia. Illegal recycling factories in Jenjarom quickly seized the opportunity to get rid of the waste, with many of them either burying or burning scraps.
Malaysia recently announced that it would send 3,000 metric tons of plastic waste (or over 6.6 million pounds) back to exporting countries, but piles of plastic have already transformed Jenjarom into a giant landfill. Here’s what it looks like on the ground.
In 2017, China banned the import of “foreign garbage,” a category that includes 24 types of recyclable and solid waste.
Other countries in Southeast Asia, including Thailand and Malaysia, have started buying up some of the recycling exports that had previously gone to China.
Recycling facilities across Southeast Asia have tried to take in some of the world’s recycling exports, but they could not match China’s volume, according to National Geographic.
With China’s ban now in place, some cities in Malaysia are overrun with the world’s plastic waste.
The 2018 study estimated that 111 million metric tons (122 million tons) of plastic waste will be displaced by 2030 because of China’s new policy.
Much of this garbage has already made its way to China’s maritime neighbour, Malaysia, which imported more than 754,000 metric tons (830,000 tons) of plastic waste from January to June of 2018, according to Greenpeace.
Recognising that there was money to be made from Malaysia’s burgeoning plastic industry, locals in Jenjarom established illegal recycling factories throughout town.
Many plastic recycling plants in Malaysia are unmarked and rented from local landlords.
Jenjarom is located about 15 miles southeast of Malaysia’s main port, Port Klang. The town’s proximity to Port Klang made it a prime dumping ground for items that entered through the port.
Instead of handing over un-recyclable scraps and parts to waste centres, the illegal factories cut costs by burning those scraps, releasing noxious fumes.
Burning plastic can release toxic chemicals like mercury, dioxins, and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) into the atmosphere, which poses a threat to human health.
A 2016 study found that burning plastic waste could increase the risk of heart disease and cause damage to the nervous system. The study also noted side effects like rashes, headaches, nausea, and worsened asthma.
The link between burning plastic waste and cancer is more tenuous, since it depends on how long a person is exposed. Over a long period of time, plastic fumes could become carcinogenic.
Local residents have said they started to become ill around the same time that the garbage piles arrived.
Residents in Jenjarom told the BBC they experienced rashes and violent coughing attacks.
A single site near a palm oil plantation in Jenjarom contains 4,400 tons of waste.
Malaysia’s environment minister, Yeo Bee Yin, told the BBC that no one was interested in purchasing the contaminated site when the state government tried to auction it off.
She added that transporting the garbage to a cement plant could cost nearly 2.5 million Malaysian ringgits ($615,000 USD).
The piles of trash are a problem throughout this region of Malaysia. In October, a worker in Pulau Indah told Reuters there were at least eight illegal factories in the island district.
In July, the nation’s housing authority investigated 114 permitted factories and found that only eight met their requirements.
The Malaysian government is hesitant to ban plastic imports, given the lucrative nature of the business, but it recently announced that it would send 3,000 metric tons of plastic waste (or over 6.6 million pounds) back to exporting countries such as the US, Japan, France, Canada, Australia, and the UK.
Yeo told Reuters in May that 60 containers of trash had been illegally imported at Port Klang. “If you ship to Malaysia, we will return it back without mercy,” she said.
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