After China closed its doors to recycling imports, cargo ships laden with tons of plastic scrap from the United States and Europe were diverted to the port of Klang on the western coast of Malaysia. From January to November of 2018, Malaysia was the top importer of plastic scrap, receiving 15.7% of total plastic exports from the top exporting countries.

The challenge with plastic scrap lies with the significant quantities from plastic exports that cannot be recycled because the bale is contaminated with non-recyclable plastic or plastic that is too expensive to recycle, or because sorting and separating recyclable components are too labor-intensive and in many cases environmentally destructive.

In Pulau Indah, Klang, a compound of two-storey shophouses with blown out glass windows and unpainted cement walls appeared abandoned. Plastic scrap filled the ground floors, spilling out into the empty roads. Mangy dogs wandered around, sniffing at the scrap.

The boss, a gregarious Malaysian businessman named Vincent Lee, said that after China’s ban, there was a spike in illegal recycling operations in Malaysia. “You see the factory for sale, for rent,” Lee said, “behind the doors are the illegal Chinese factories.”

Lee said the United States only wants to deal with good quality plastic, the rest is exported to places like Malaysia. And he has become an expert on the afterlives of the contents of the recycling bins on the other side of the world.

Lee said that after China shut down plastic scrap imports, his business partner, sensing an opportunity, traveled to the United States for due diligence to look into opening a recycling factory nearer to where the imports originated. His partner came back convinced that recycling on US soil wasn’t a viable business. “Americans don’t have the expertise,” Lee said, for sifting out the last bits of recycling from consumer products. The second reason was what he called “the environmental issue.”

Environmental protection regulations make it unprofitable for recycling factories to process plastic scrap on North American soil. But even as North Americans legislate the protection of their own environment, they continue to use, dispose of, and export plastics they’ve deemed too toxic to countries like Malaysia, leaving others to suffer the consequences of American consumerism.

Grassroots Action: “We had to do it ourselves”

In the town of Jenjarom, in the Kuala Langat district 25 kilometers south of Port Klang, Tan Ching Hin, a prominent citizen, fielded increasing complaints about the new businesses opened by the Chinese mainlanders. They had arrived in Jenjarom at the end of 2017, in the months after China announced their ban on plastic scrap.

A friend of his, Tiger Lim, owner of a plantation downstream from one of the new recycling factories, said the fruits on his palms rotted before they ripened, ruining his harvest. Lim said the two crocodiles that lived in the river disappeared, chased away by the toxic runoff from the factory.

Workers recycle imported plastic in a legal plastic recycling factory in Klang, Malaysia on 23rd January, 2019.

Others complained about respiratory problems and skin rashes. Mothers worried about their children, the elderly coughed all night. For months, people walked around town with their eyes itching. Everyone complained about the smell.

“You taste it in your mouth, you smell it,” said Daniel Tay, who works at the local school.

Tan wrote a letter to the district council about the pollution, but didn’t get a response. “We had to do it ourselves,” he said.

The illegal factories were hard to find, set up by design in remote fields around Jenjarom. To gather information, Tan said he went to wakes, eavesdropping into conversations, in case some of the gathered mourners lived near a factory and were complaining about the smell of burning trash. He interrogated the local property agents who helped the Chinese businessmen find lots to rent. If he found a promising lead, Tan saved the location on Google maps. In the first report, he identified 20 factories operating without licenses. When he presented his findings to the district council, they asked him if he didn’t have something better to do.

As the support for his quest grew, more volunteers joined his cause. By July 2018, he had formed a group dedicated to trying to shut down illegal, unregulated plastic recycling factories, called Kuala Langat Environmental Protection Action Group. They held a fundraiser and began flying drones over the illegal factories as proof of their activities, identifying 38 plastic scrap factories operating in the district, only one of which was licensed.

On August 2, 2018, after receiving a letter from the group with their findings, an enforcement team consisting of officials from the local government, immigration, the environment department, the fire brigade, and police raided eight illegal factories, cutting off their water and electricity supplies and arresting 13 migrant laborers.

It was a moment of triumph for Tan Ching Hin and the Kuala Langat Environmental Protection Action Group. Tan said that within two weeks, those factories had left. For nearly a year they had endured the daily smell of burning plastic, and that raid was the first of several that would sharply curb illegal plastic recycling factories in their district.

The Malaysian government has cracked down on illegal recycling operations, and in October 2018, the government announced a permanent ban on importing plastic waste by 2021, and imports to Malaysia dropped steeply.

Still, Tan worried that if they don’t stay vigilant, the illegal plastic factories will come back. After steep drops following Malaysia’s crackdown, data in the last quarter of 2018 suggests that imports are beginning to tick up again.