Malaysia Steps Up Effort to Catch Illegal Plastic Waste at its Ports

File image courtesy Adam Dean / GAIA

By The Maritime Executive 04-25-2019 05:34:24

Since China imposed steep restrictions on the importation of recycled materials in January 2018, Malaysia has become one of the prime destinations for waste plastic from industrialized nations - but not always lawfully, and not without a cost. Malaysia's environment ministry now says that it wants to intercept misdeclared plastics upon arrival at the nation's ports and send them back to where they came from. 

According to the Malaysian government, a large industry of unlicensed plastic-recycling factories are in operation throughout the country, and some are in the practice of importing containers full of improperly declared plastic waste. The problem has been ongoing for years:  terminal operators in Port Klang have reported that they have to store and dispose of hundreds of unclaimed containers of plastic imported without the proper permits. In 2017, the Port Klang Authority told The Star that the problem has persisted for years - and it does not appear to have improved since.

On Tuesday, Malaysian environment minister Yeo Bee Yin visited Port Klang to inspect dozens of containers of misdeclared plastic waste. "They are falsely declaring it as [virgin plastic material], where they don't need a permit and can enter the country straight away," Yeo told reporters. "We need to stop it at the ports and we believe that there are syndicates who are making lucrative profits from importing such waste from developed countries."

She announced a full-scale clampdown on misdeclared plastic waste, and she warned Malaysian freight forwarders that they could lose their licenses if their customers use the wrong HS code for containers of recycled goods. In addition, she said that Malaysia would send the waste back to the country of origin, per the terms of the Basel Convention. 

The rising volumes of illicit imports are attributable to China's decision to clamp down on recyclables like waste paper and waste plastic. China used to absorb about half of the world's exported post-consumer waste, but last year, Beijing chose to impose strict limits due to concerns about image and pollution. Without China as a destination market, municipalities in developed nations have had to deal with a pileup of unwanted plastic scrap - some of which has now headed to Malaysia, which has become the biggest importer of the commodity. According to Yeo, Malaysia would like to follow China's lead and phase out recycled plastic imports within three years' time. 

Yeo's agency is also cracking down on the unlicensed plastic recyclers, many of which have subpar environmental records. As in China, the gray-market recycling industry in Malaysia is associated with unregulated dumping and burning of plastic trash. Following complaints and tips from citizens, Yeo's agency has shut down nearly 150 illegal recycling plants since last year.