PETALING JAYA: “Malaysia has become the world's rubbish bin” – this was a powerful statement made by Greenpeace Malaysia in 2018, when it was reported that the country had taken in 754,000 tonnes of plastic waste from over 19 countries that year.
This reeked of bad news, especially for Jenjarom, a town located in the Kuala Langat District, that is now smothered in 17,000 tonnes (17mil kg) of waste, according to the BBC.
What has been described as illegal plastic recycling factories began cropping up in 2018, all hoping to make a quick profit from the burgeoning plastic recycling industry, worth over RM3bil.
The were soon 33 illegal factories in Kuala Langat, the district Jenjarom is located in. Some sprang up near dense palm oil plantations, whereas others were closer to town, the British broadcaster reported on its portal.
Many residents around the area suffered the direct consequences of the waste dumping, with their health and well-being being affected every day.
“The smell started a while ago, but got really bad around August this year,” the BBC quoted resident Daniel Tay as saying.
“I started to feel unwell and I would keep coughing. I was really angry when I found out it was because of these factories.”
According to the BBC, many illegal recycling plants choose to dispose of plastic in a “cheaper” way – either burying it or burning it.
Resident Ngoo Kwi Hong said the fumes from the burning became so hazardous that she even coughed up a blood clot.
“I couldn't sleep at night because it was so smelly. I became like a zombie, I was so tired.
“It was only later I found out there were factories surrounding my house – north, south, east, west,” Ngoo told the BBC.
Children were also affected, especially those who lived nearest to the factories in Jenjarom.
“He got a really bad rash around his stomach, neck, legs and arms. His skin would keep peeling, even when we touched him, it hurt. I was angry and scared for his health, but what could I do? The smell was everywhere in the air,” Belle Tan described the impact of the factories on her 11-year-old.
For a town of 30,000 residents, 17mil kg of rubbish is far from insignificant. According to BBC's report, four out of the 17 million kilograms of rubbish sit on a single piece of land.
“We are trying to identify who is the owner of the land, we are still investigating this,” Minister of Housing and Local Government Zuraida Kamaruddin told the BBC.
“No one wants it because it is so contaminated,” said Energy, Technology, Science, Climate Change and Environment Minister Yeo Bee Yin.
Zuraida added that the government had initially considered banning plastic altogether, but realised that it had “a lot of business potential for Malaysia”.
She maintained that stricter rules will be placed on plastic importers, who would now have to adhere to permits to import plastic waste.
Another problem that persists is the distinction between “waste” and “clean plastic scrap”.
According to the BBC, there is no way to identify one or the other, unless someone manually goes through the imported waste.
Yeo said that a proper labelling system would be able to take this distinction into account.
“At the end of the day, what we need is a systemic standardisation for waste,” she said.
Otherwise, Jenjarom and the rest of Malaysia will continue being “the world's rubbish bin”.