Malaysia endures toxic legacy of UK plastic waste exports

Jarvis Smith - My Green Pod

Home » ‘The Recycling Myth 2.0’

Published: 27 May 2020

This Article was Written by: Jarvis Smith - My Green Pod

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Main image: © Fred Dott / Greenpeace

In its latest report, The Recycling Myth 2.0, Greenpeace reveals that plastic waste exports from the UK and other developed nations, illegally dumped in Malaysia, have caused widespread environmental contamination.

Heavy metals and toxic chemicals that are potentially harmful to human health were found in soil and water samples taken from illegal dump sites.

The samples were taken from four sites in Selangor and Kedah states, where plastic waste from the UK – some of it from household recycling collections – had been discovered in a 2018 Greenpeace investigation. The sites had since been closed down and partially cleared.

The Greenpeace report highlights the long-term effects of a corrupt and broken recycling system, where exports of contaminated waste – much of it under the guise of ‘recyclable scraps’ – are often dumped illegally in developing countries.

‘Despite commitments by the UK government to curb the trade in plastic waste exports, Britain is still continuing to behave like a long range fly-tipper.

‘This report exposes how we are inflicting a poisonous and toxic legacy on innocent communities living on the other side of the world. We need to stop ‘offshoring’ the country’s plastic waste problem and focus on reducing and reusing packaging – supporting UK industry to recycle what is left over.’

LOUISE EDGE
Plastics campaigner at Greenpeace

‘Indelible mark on Malaysia’

After China banned plastic waste imports in January 2018, Malaysia became a primary destination for plastic waste originating from countries including the UK, the United States, Japan, Germany, Hong Kong, Australia and Italy, among others.

Despite the Malaysian government’s shutdown of 218 plastic recycling factories between 2019 and 2020 for not complying with regulations, the UK continues to export plastic waste to Malaysia.

According to HMRC’s uktradeinfo.com, between January and March 2020 the UK exported 13,977 tonnes of plastic waste to Malaysia. This is up from 10,023 tonnes over the same period last year.

‘The illegal dumping of plastic waste from over 19 countries worldwide has left an indelible mark on Malaysia and other countries in Southeast Asia.

‘Aside from the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, communities in Selangor and Kedah have another invisible enemy to face – chemical contaminants that remain in our environment with the possibility of entering our food chain.’

HENG KIAH CHUN
Greenpeace Malaysia campaigner

Lead and cadmium

Samples of material resembling topsoil, covering large areas of the ground at sites where plastic waste had been burned, were found to be composed of shredded plastic, not earth.

Testing showed that these contained brominated flame retardants and high concentrations of heavy metals such as cadmium and lead, which can accumulate in the body of exposed communities and organisms over time.

Lead can cause damage to the nervous system and development in children over long-term exposure, and cadmium can result in damage to the kidneys and bones.

Water sampling of surface waters from nearby riverbanks and canals contained chemical contaminants such as phosphorus-based flame retardant (TPPO) as well as metals and metalloids such as antimony, nickel and copper.

‘When plastics are exported from one country to another they can bring with them a wide range of hazardous chemicals.

‘Improper storage and treatment can later release these chemicals into the local environment, and burning can even generate new hazardous chemicals.’

DR KEVIN BRIGDEN
Senior scientist form Greenpeace Research Laboratories

Investigations were carried out collaboratively among Greenpeace offices both locally and internationally. These include Greenpeace teams from Malaysia, Germany, Hong Kong, and Italy as well as Greenpeace Research Laboratories in the United Kingdom.

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