Will South-East Asia be the new world dump?

  • Environment
  • Sunday, 11 Feb 2018

A boy collects plastic for resale at Marunda beach in Jakarta. - Filepic

South-East Asian countries are slated to take over the tough, dirty task of processing plastic from China.

The labour-intensive job of taking bales of plastic waste to be broken down, cleaned, separated into different resins and finally made into pellets ready to be reshaped into new products is now expected to fall to this region.

This follows China’s decision to stop importing poor quality plastic waste materials from the West and Japan.

Malaysia, Vietnam, Indonesia and Thailand have attracted Chinese investors in the plastics recycling sector over the past year, keen to fill the void left in China, industry officials said.

Most have yet to develop their own domestic recycling collection systems, but their access to cheap labour and close proximity to China’s manufacturing industries work in their favour.

Unable to send their plastic waste to China, Britain and the United States are now likely to increase their domestic recycling capacities in an effort to reduce exports. But industry officials say this could take years and may still not be enough.

The plastic waste rejected by China will probably end up in Malaysia and South-East Asia. - Filepic

Faced with growing stockpiles of plastic waste, many British and US companies are either burning some of them for energy recovery or sending the materials to landfill, but both these methods will be disastrous for the environment, they warned.

Preliminary data from the Brussels-based Bureau of International Recycling (BIR) showed imports of plastic waste into South-East Asia are already rising fast.

BIR estimates that annual imports of plastic scrap into Malaysia jumped to 475,000 tonnes in 2017 from 288,000 tonnes in 2016.

Vietnam’s imports rose by 62% to 525,000 tonnes for 2017, while Thailand and Indonesia showed increases of up to 117% and 65% respectively.

The industry fears, however, that a flood of unregulated plastic waste to these countries could lead to similar problems as those experienced in China – including illegal smuggling of waste that was simply dumped in landfills.

To avoid this, industry officials urged South-East Asian nations to tighten health and safety regulations, so that they can properly monitor what plastics enter their countries, and stop illegal practices.

Greenpeace East Asia campaigner Liu Hua wants to see companies use less packaging in the longer-term, but for now, South-East Asian governments should strengthen environmental controls to limit the spread of hazardous chemical waste. – Reuters

We next see how we can rethink the way we use, make, recycle and dispose of plastic. 

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