plastic waste transactions

by martina chow, 2nd year politics and international relations at LSE

Courtesy of Simson Petrol, source: Unsplash

Courtesy of Simson Petrol, source: Unsplash


Running through the thick jungle on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur, my father and I sensed a gripping stench as we stumbled across an open-air dump site. This was not an uncommon occurrence.

Southeast Asia is a dumping ground for plastic waste from the developed world, and the situation has only worsened since China banned plastic waste imports in early 2018. Malaysia bore a large brunt of this, importing nearly half a million tonnes of plastic waste between January and July 2018 alone, with Thailand, Vietnam and the Philippines importing similar amounts, from high-income, developed countries. The UK is among the top exporters. Recycling subsidies encourage this, which means that rather than managing their own waste domestically, these countries are exporting it to countries in the global south, and exporting the burden of its consequences along with it. The UK has in fact been found to export over two times the amount of plastic waste it processes domestically. Southeast Asian states are thus faced with an immense amount of imported waste to process alongside their domestic waste. And this places a huge strain on existing disposal and recycling systems as well as the various governments’ ability to regulate and oversee it.

The effects of this have not gone unnoticed. What my father and I witnessed was nothing in comparison. Strains on the domestic system in Malaysia combined with flaws in the international trade system set up to manage exchanges of plastic waste have resulted in a number of illegal operations and in turn, illegal dump sites and burning. Illegal operations mean that this imported waste is popping up in and around small villages without adequate oversight and measures of control. Constant, direct and poorly filtered exposure to this waste has affected residents’ health and wellbeing, as the smoke from the burning and smell from the dumps seeps into their homes and day-to-day lives. Overwhelmed and in response, the Malaysian government announced a permanent ban on plastic waste in October 2018 to be achieved in a window of 3 years.

While the crackdown of illegal sites is a long process, the ban is a step forward: most importantly, it halts further legal imports, but it has also sparked conversation and is indicative of a trend in the region. Prior to Malaysia, Vietnam, also took measures to address the influx of plastic waste, and decided to stop issuing new licenses for the import of waste and the crackdown of illegal shipments. However, some argue that it will come with repercussions for its importing neighbours: the Philippines and Indonesia, especially, who will have to fill the import gaps. This is a valid concern, but it ignores a much wider implication.

The situation in Malaysia and the rest of Southeast Asia is illustrative of a double standard in the climate policy debate. Governments of developed nations often point fingers at developing nations for not doing enough to address climate change. They elevate their environmental successes and place them in contrast to the developing, global south. Countries like Malaysia are being pushed to implement climate friendly reforms while simultaneously prioritising the kind of development that was afforded to the now developed world. This is not to say that they should not be held accountable for climate change and the necessary reforms. In fact, developing countries have the unique opportunity to find new, sustainable pathways to development and they should grasp it. However, not only are these countries expected to pioneer in solutions for (truly) sustainable development and grapple with the challenges - financial, technical and political - of doing so, they also face the hypocrisy of the West. While households in developed nations enjoy the benefits of a seemingly clean and efficient recycling system; households in developing nations scramble to deal with the repercussions of waste imports and the waste of others as well as their own.

But plastic pollution is a global problem. And with only 9% of plastic actually being recycled, while a striking 79% sits in landfills, the British public, and the wider public at large, need to be confronted by their waste and the extent of their pollution. Though the effects of this pollution can be simply exported abroad for the time being, this will only further entrench society’s insulation from the damage it causes and justify the widespread climate apathy that maintains this state of denial and prevents any significant action from taking place.