A crackdown on plastic waste illegally ocean-shipped to Malaysia took a dramatic turn last night. The country’s environment ministry announced that it would be sending 450 metric tons of contaminated plastic waste in 10 maritime shipping containers back to their countries of origin. A metric ton is equivalent to 2,204.6 U.S. pounds.
The ten containers originate from Australia, Bangladesh, Canada, China, Japan, Saudi Arabia and the United States.
The ocean shipping containers are filled with non-recyclable plastic waste and were due to be sent to facilities in the country that could not recycle plastic in an environmentally appropriate way, contrary to Malaysia’s Environmental Quality Act (1974).
Laborious and costly inspections
Malaysia is currently carrying out a “laborious and costly” inspection process and has, to date, inspected 123 shipping containers from around the world. Inspections of plastic processing facilities began in July last year and were extended to Port Klang in March this year.
Five containers were also sent back to Spain on April 29. A total of 3,000 tons of plastic waste from 60 containers are expected to be shipped back to the country of origin.
The inspection process also found that one recycling company in the UK has exported more than 50,000 metric tons (110.23 million U.S. pounds) of plastic waste in 1,000 ocean shipping containers over two years.
Malaysia is not happy.
“We view the perpetrators of this act as traitors”
“We will continue to weed out the imports of contaminated plastic waste. These containers were illegally brought into our country under false declaration and other offenses which clearly violates our environmental law,” Environment Minister Yeo Bee Yin said.
“Garbage is traded under the pretext of recycling. Malaysians are forced to suffer poor air quality due to open burning of plastics which leads to health hazard[s], polluted rivers, illegal landfills and a host of other related problems. We view the perpetrators of this act as traitors to the country’s sustainability and therefore they should be stopped and brought to justice,” she added.
Penalties may apply for breaches of Malaysia’s various environment laws. These include fines up to about US$24,000 (100,000 Malaysian Ringgit). If that doesn’t sound like a lot of money, bear in mind the average salary in Malaysia last year was US$29,053. Many employed people are paid considerably less than that. A three-year warehouse supervisor can expect just under US$9,000 a year.
And, depending on the offense, there is also the possibility of jail time of up to five years.
Malaysia’s Ministry for the Environment adds that it will continue enforcement activities on contaminated plastic waste and falsely declared cargo “at all Malaysian entry points”. Any non-compliant plastic waste will be returned to the country of origin, the Ministry says.
Ocean shipping of plastic waste will get more difficult
The international shipping of plastic waste is going to get a lot more difficult in the very near future. The trade was the subject of an international vote just a few weeks ago in Geneva, Switzerland, on May 10 this year.
Representatives of more than 180 nations met and voted in favor of a proposal by Norway to require exporter countries to get “prior informed consent” before shipping plastics that are either contaminated with hazardous materials or which have to be processed before recycling.
Plastics that are not contaminated and which can be recycled without further processing do not need prior informed consent.
Under the consent procedure, the authorities in the exporting countries will have to provide authorities in the importing or transit countries with detailed information prior to shipping. Shipping can only occur if all the parties give their written consent to the proposed shipment.
The consent procedure takes effect from January 1, 2021.
Humanity created 275 million metric tons (606.3 billion U.S. pounds) of plastic waste was generated in 192 coastal countries in 2010, according to scientists. Between 4.8 to 12.7 million tons went into the sea.
Plastics in the urban environment clog drains, leading to localized flooding. In the natural world, toxic chemicals leach into the environment which leads to chronic illnesses and death in land and marine creatures. Larger plastics can be mistaken as sources of food – for instance, turtles eat white translucent plastic bags floating in the ocean. It’s believed turtles mistake the bags for jellyfish. Ingestion of plastics kills turtles.
Plastic fishing nets may trap and kill marine animals such as seals, turtles and fish. Plastics also break down into micro-plastics which work their way into the food chain.
Micro-plastics have been found to contaminate food for human consumption such as seafood of various kinds, tap water, bottled water, beer, salt, honey and chicken, among other foods.