COMMENT | New Zealand news portal RadioNZ’s recent exposé of the illegal plastic recycling industry in Jenjarom and plantation hinterlands in Malaysia that deal with plastic waste imported from New Zealand and the United Kingdom, highlights the fact that most of the world, including developed nations with ostensibly clear waste management and recycling legislation, are ill-equipped to deal with plastic waste.
The irony of this fact – the import and processing of plastic waste in Malaysia – is not lost on environmentally aware Malaysians who applauded Energy, Science, Technology, Environment and Climate Change Minister Yeo Bee Yin’s latest announcement on Sept 14 that Malaysia would be phasing out and eventually banning single-use plastics.
All our efforts to reduce plastic waste and microplastic pollution would translate into very low environmental and health returns if plastic recyclers – which are mostly unlicensed and unregulated – are allowed to continue processing plastic waste that had entered Malaysia prior to the Minister’s Sept 1 announcement of a restriction on plastic waste imports.
The plastics manufacturing industry tries to convince the public that littering, ignorance about recycling and the lack of recycling facilities – and not the production of plastics per se – are the problem.
But the real problem is that we are using a lot more plastics and generating a lot more waste as the world is becoming more industrialised. The World Economic Forum reports that we use 20 times as much plastic as we did 50 years ago. Businesses create more single-use plastics to meet consumers’ expectations for convenience, and most of these plastics can never be recycled.
Plastic recycling is a labour-intensive process. Plastic waste has to be broken down, cleaned, separated by grade and made into pellets. This means that manufacturing plastic from scratch is always more economically rewarding than recycling it, even with subsidies and recycling-related legislation in place.
Developed nations often believe that legislating and incentivising recycling and collecting plastics for recycling is the same thing as ensuring that plastics are being properly recycled.
What the general public often is not aware of, is that developed nations take the easy option of exporting plastic waste to developing nations – the very same developing nations whose rivers are identified as the source of 90 percent of marine plastics, and the very same developing nations lacking sufficient infrastructure to manage their own plastic waste.
It could take years for Britain, the US and European nations to increase their domestic recycling capacities. Even so, existing recycling technology isn’t good enough, largely because of limitations in how plastics can be sorted by chemical composition and cleaned of additives. Most plastics that are recycled are shredded and reprocessed into lower-value plastics, such as polyester carpet fibre. Only 2 percent are recycled into products of the same quality.
In the meantime, more plastic products will continue to be produced, used and discarded, and many countries will resort to burning plastics for energy recovery or dumping them at landfills. However, burning plastic creates harmful dioxins, and if incinerators are inefficient, these dioxins leak into the environment. Burning plastic for energy generation is also very carbon-intensive and contributes to increased carbon emissions.
Burying plastic waste in landfills may appear to be safer but this is a really inefficient use of land, and studies have found that the degradation of plastic waste in oceans and landfills actually produces methane and ethylene, both potent greenhouse gases.
The solution to the problem of plastic waste doesn’t lie in increased recycling, or replacing plastics with other types of disposable packaging. Biodegradable packaging is linked to other environmental problems, which include increased carbon and methane emissions in landfills, deforestation, higher water and land use, and higher fuel use due to the fact that paper and plant fibre products weigh more than plastics.
The solution to the problem of plastic waste lies not in setting up yet more licensed and legal plastic recycling plants in Malaysia and other developing nations, as there will always be unrecyclable and contaminated plastic waste and toxic byproducts to deal with.
The solution does not lie in individual countries banning the import of plastic waste in order to protect their own population from reduced air quality and other environmental hazards, as there will be other developing nations and impoverished societies desperate enough to accept imports of plastic waste.
The solution lies in creating a circular economy that does not rely on shipping materials across oceans to be reused, but keeps resources in use for as long as possible in the economic cycle.
The solution to the problems of plastic waste lie in reducing dependency on all single-use and disposable items, creating more closed-loop and low-waste systems, creating and sustaining a bigger market for reusables, and making zero-waste stores and products available, accessible and affordable to all, not just to higher income, urban, educated and expatriate communities.
The Malaysian government is taking a step in the right direction by raising awareness, phasing out single-use plastics, enforcing laws against open burning, banning the import of plastic waste and regulating the plastics recycling industry.
What we need now is for the Malaysian public to stop treating environmental issues as political or economic issues, and to understand that environmental and human health are interconnected. What we need now is to stop seeing the problem of plastic waste management as the fault of high-consuming, affluent developed nations, or the fault of developing nations with high corruption levels and flawed waste management systems. Instead, we need to start seeing it as a shared responsibility.
WONG EE LYNN is coordinator for Green Living Special Interest Group, of the Malaysian Nature Society
The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of Malaysiakini.