Human Writes: Malaysia rated one of the world’s worst for plastic pollution

My friend and former colleague Andrew Sia noted with despair in a recent Facebook post that people are buying “cartons upon cartons” of packet drinks, even of green tea, ahead of Chinese New Year in February.

“Why not serve freshly brewed tea in a nice pot?” he suggested. “It’s cheaper, fresher, healthier and better for the environment.”

(Yes, these sugar-loaded packet drinks aren’t healthy; that “healthy” isotonic drink with 22g of sugar comes close to the daily recommended adult limit for sugar.)

The drinks may seem a minor matter. But it all adds up. Every day, we buy stuff without a thought about packaging. When we bin it, we forget it. We are oblivious to where our rubbish goes, like children who don’t think about the work needed to prepare a good meal. Well, I’ll tell you. Those packet drinks will probably end up in a dump, where they may remain for hundreds of years.

Malaysia has been rated as one of the world’s worst countries for plastic pollution. Most of our plastics are dumped, a small portion burnt and a very tiny fraction (2% in 2013) recycled.

And now there’s the horror of plastic waste we take in from other countries (even though we can’t handle our own!). We sank to a new low last year: We became the world’s most famous plastic rubbish dump. As The Straits Times in Singapore put it recently: “Malaysia – where the world sends its trash”.

We imported nearly half a million tonnes of plastic waste in the first half of 2018, says Greenpeace Malaysia. The waste came from 19 countries, Greenpeace found by investigating packaging labels at dumpsites. Are we so cheap? How easily we prostitute our Tanah Malaysia!

The plastic waste was supposed to be processed for recycling, but the companies involved, many illegal, simply dumped or burnt it.

It’s a scandal that has made headlines the world over. Images of black smoke billowing from burning plastic and plastic trash mountains are far from the promotional material Tourism Malaysia needs.

One badly-hit town is Jenjarom, in the Kuala Langat area near Klang, Selangor. There, burning plastic – which can release toxic dioxins and carbon monoxide – has caused residents to have difficulty breathing, persistent coughing, fatigue and itchy, watery eyes, says a Greenpeace report.

Water runoff from dumpsites also killed all the prawns at a local prawn farm. Leaking plastic waste can contaminate soil and waterways with toxic heavy metals (used as pigments) and an alphabet soup of various chemicals (eg POPs, PBTs, PCBs).

The government has uncovered 97 illegal factories, including 10 in Kedah and 10 in Negri Sembilan. Some were promptly shut down. By April, more factories will be shut down, the government said earlier this week. Licensed factories will also be scrutinised while a temporary ban on the import of plastic waste remains.

Great. But this may not be enough.

As Greenpeace noted in its report: “The temporary ban on imports in Malaysia did not halt ... burning and dumping activities.... Existing monitoring and enforcement policies and practices in Malaysia are inadequate....”

When some factories in Kuala Langat were ordered to close or had their power cut off, they moved to Klang or got power generators.

Persatuan Tindakan Alam Sekitar Klang, a local environmental group, has complained that some Klang factories are still running despite orders to stop.

Stopping these operators will test the government’s ability to act. Greenpeace has called for “all errant actors, especially key decision-makers and funders” of these operations to be held accountable.

The public also has a part to play, in reporting illegal activity. Indeed, this was how the issue surfaced initially. Local residents of Kuala Langat, sick of breathing polluted air, worked hard to uncover the evidence. Despite facing death threats, they recorded the location of the factories with GPS devices and took pictures by renting a drone to fly overhead.

One Jenjarom resident, Lay Peng Pua, collected water samples from dumpsites with chemical-grade gloves; the water contained toxic heavy metals. Her story, reported by The Los Angeles Times, is inspiring. To me, these local activists are national heroes.

In July last year, after months of complaints (and a change of government), they finally saw some action. But it’s still a long road ahead to clean up the mess.

There is a need for legal, law-abiding plastic recycling companies. It’s a profitable business and we still need to recycle. But we should recycle our own waste first before importing any. That means far better collection of plastic waste. Getting the public to separate plastic waste would be a huge step forward. It can be done. Germany for example collects 98.5% of plastic bottles (a 25 cent refund on returns helps).

And, of course, we need to reduce our use of plastic. Come on, isn’t green tea so much nicer from a cup?

Human Writes columnist Mangai Balasegaram writes mostly on health but also delves into anything on being human. She has worked with international public health bodies and has a Masters in public health. Write to her at

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