"Since February of this year we felt very bad and [there's been] an unbearable smell in the air, especially at night and in the morning. But we didn't realise... the source until we gradually found there were more and more recycling factories around us, but due to their high fencing design we couldn't see anything."
Nita Blake-Persen from Insight program of RadioNZ travelled to Malaysia to investigate the thousands of tons of plastic from New Zealand that is exported to Malaysia after China banned the import of most plastic waste.
The ban of plastic waste by China
China, as an industrial powerhouse country, began enforcing its 'National Sword' policy into effect in February 2018. This includes the bans 24 types of various plastic, paper and solid waste, including plastics such as PET, PE, PVC and PS.
A study wrote in the journal Science Advances found that China has imported about 45% of the world’s plastic waste since 1992 for recycling. This no small amount means China's decision will affect all the countries and industries that had been shipping their plastic waste to the country. Among all, New Zealand, UK, and Australia are included, as they turned their head to Southeast Asia countries, such as Malaysia.
Malaysia as the popular dump
Blake-Persen reported that Malaysia had become a popular alternative for the UK, Australia and New Zealand, which the later has tripled their exports into Malaysia in the first semester of 2018.
Throughout last year, she remarked, NZ has in total sent 6,300 tons of plastic to Malaysia. Now with three months left to 2018, nearly 6,000 have already been exported to the country.
It's hard to trace where exactly the waste has been dumped since recyclers and councils in New Zealand typically sell the plastics to a broker, who then sells it to factories across Asia for processing.
Illegal recycling-plastics factories
In July, local authorities visited 38 recycling-plastics factories in Kuala Langat, and found only three had recycling permits. Most are hidden in the palm oil plantations, as told in Blake-Persen report, which the factory owners rent because they are cheap and accessible to waterways. An easier method to dump contaminated water they use to clean the filthy plastics before they process them.
In the same month, the government suspended the importing license of 114 factories for verification. The suspension was lifted a month later by The Housing and Local Government Ministry, citing the decision was made after taking into account the justification for the appeals, current situation and position of the industry at free trade zones (FTZ) and the License Manufacturing Warehouse (LMW)-status plants in Malaysia.
On 1 September, the Energy, Science, Technology, Environment, and Climate Change Minister Yeo Bee Yin said the government had blocked the import of plastic waste a month ago and shut down 14 illegal recycling factories in Kuala Langat.
However, Lay Peng Pua, a chemist living in the area most of her life, said that four factories have started operating again ever since, with one of the factories daringly operated just hours after it was closed.
High-level corruption suspected
Yeo Bee Yin noted that the problem is not just about the environmental issue, but also a local council issue with how the illegal factories can exist in Kuala Langat, a district located in the southwestern part of Selangor.
This follows the allegation of high-level corruption involving multiple government agencies in the illegal operation of Chinese plastic recycling companies in Selangor as reported by MalayMail on July 27.
The report said that National Sword policy forced Chinese plastic recycling companies to look to Malaysia as a potential base for relocation because, geographically speaking, it's easier and cheaper. But crucially, as reported, many of the Chinese plastic recycling operators also felt they could manipulate Malaysia’s “loose regulation”.
Hazardous for health
Many of the illegal factories are burning and dumping the waste they can’t process. Residents of Kuala Langat claimed that they are "facing serious health hazards due to air and ground pollution" from the factories.
Complaints were directed to the authorities "over foul-smelling smoke and liquid residue" the residents believed to be released from those factories.
In the past two months since July, several fish and prawn ponds operating nearby have lost all of their stock, and the owners suspect they were poisoned by the toxic wastewater coming from the factories.