The Malaysian Government has announced that it has returned 150 shipping containers of illegally imported plastic waste to their countries of origin, including the UK.
Some 3,737 tonnes of plastic waste have been returned to mostly developed countries including the US, France and the UK, after entering the country without permits.
In a Facebook post published yesterday morning (20 September), Malaysian Environment Minister Yeo Bee Yin said that the “unprecedented move” by the Malaysian Government to repatriate the containers showed that it was “serious about combating the import of illegal wastes” and that it was determined that Malaysia would not become the “garbage bin of the world”.
In the UK, the Environment Agency (EA) received an official request from the Malaysian authorities to repatriate 42 shipping containers of plastic waste on 5 September 2019. The Malaysian Government announced its intention to send back the containers in May 2019, before a press release by the British High Commission in Malaysia announced that the UK had accepted the repatriation request in November 2019.
Some containers have already arrived in the UK and the agency states that it is continuing to work to return the rest to the UK as soon as possible, anticipating that the last containers will leave Malaysia no later than February 2020.
An Environment Agency spokesperson, said: “We continue to work with the shipping lines and Malaysian authorities to ensure all waste is brought back as soon as possible. We are working hard to stop illegal waste exports from leaving our shores in the first place – last year we prevented over 12,500 tonnes of waste that might have been illegally exported from reaching ports, and inspected nearly 1,000 shipping containers. Anyone found guilty of exporting waste illegally can face a two year jail term and an unlimited fine.”
Following China’s decision to ban 24 grades of solid waste, including mixed post-consumer plastics, at the start of 2018, Malaysia saw an influx of imported plastic waste – a state of affairs replicated across much of Southeast Asia – leading it to impose its own import restrictions.
Simon Ellin, Chief Executive of the Recycling Association, which represents a number of UK waste exporters, expressed frustration at the return of the containers: “It’s very frustrating that these containers are coming back because it is another case of the industry receiving bad publicity for the indiscretions of a few and we simply have to get a grip on the illegal exports of plastics. If they are as bad as we are told they are, then the regulators must take firm action against the perpetrators.”
The backlash against plastic waste imports has not been limited to the countries receiving such waste, with UK MPs calling for a complete ban on the export of the UK’s plastic waste to developing countries in February 2019. The government has now indicated that it will legislate to implement such a ban, laying out its plans for such in the Queen’s Speech at the end of December.
Sian Sutherland, Co-founder of plastic waste campaign group A Plastic Planet, has welcomed the government’s announcement and calls for immediate action: “Last year we called for an outright ban on the UK’s selfish practice of plastic waste exports to developing countries, and the government listened.
“We strongly urge them to introduce a ban immediately, take action to dramatically reduce our plastic use and bring about a radical overhaul of our waste systems so we can process the materials we use on our own soil. Having to deal with our own plastic will help us all realise the only answer is to turn off the plastic tap.”