Here’s Why America Is Dumping Its Trash in Poorer Countries

The filthy secrets of the multibillion-dollar global recycling industry

Mohd Rasfan/AFP/Getty Images

This story was originally published by HuffPost. It appears here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

Bales of plastic garbage, stacked 15 feet high, shimmered in the 100-degree heat. They gave off a faint chemical smell as they warped and softened under the equatorial sun.  

A canary-yellow Walmart clearance tag poked out from one of the dirty heaps. Wrappers and packages from American products were visible nearby. These items had likely traveled 10,000 miles to this unmarked and apparently unauthorized dumpsite in a quiet industrial neighborhood in northwestern Malaysia. 

Ad hoc dumps like this one, teeming with foreign waste, have popped up across Southeast Asia in recent months —each an ugly symbol of a global recycling system that regional activists and politicians have described as unjust, inequitable and broken. In January and February, HuffPost visited several of these sites in Malaysia to see what really happens to much of the plastic trash that originates in the US and other wealthy nations.

Last year Malaysia became—virtually overnight—the world’s largest importer of plastic scrap, receiving hundreds of millions of tons from the United States, Europe, Japan and elsewhere. Malaysia’s neighbors, including Thailand and Vietnam, endured a similar deluge. The results have been shocking. 

In Malaysia, shipments of imported plastic are piling up at ports, and a robust underground industry of illegal recyclers has spread across the nation, affecting the health and safety of local communities.  

“What’s happening in Southeast Asia, what’s happening in Malaysia, shows just how bankrupt the recycling system really is,” said Von Hernandez, the global coordinator for the Break Free From Plastic initiative, speaking from the Philippines in February. “Consumers, especially those in the West, are conditioned to believe that when they separate their recyclables and throw them out, that it’ll be properly taken care of. But that’s been exposed as a myth.”

US companies, despite making broad promises about reducing waste and promoting recycling, are often unaware of where their used products and packaging end up.

Walmart, which has vowed to reduce waste and to invest in recycling infrastructure, did not respond to questions about the bale found in Malaysia, but Jerry Powell, the executive editor of the industry publication Resource Recycling, said the company was likely clueless as to how plastic waste apparently generated at one of its US stores traveled thousands of miles across the ocean only to pollute a Malaysian neighborhood. A Walmart store might send its plastic rubbish to a local recycler, he said last week from Oregon, “but what their local recycler does with it, they have no idea. They don’t track where it goes from there.”

Only about half the trash at the Ipoh dumpsite appeared to be from Malaysia. The other half was a hodgepodge of waste from countries like the US, China and New Zealand. The bale with the Walmart tag was tightly packed with an array of other plastic waste, including a bag that once contained cheese from Wisconsin cheesemaker Sargento with a US 800 number printed on its back and a bright blue Oreo Mini container, empty and crushed flat. The bale was wrapped in a plastic sheet stamped with “Sigma Supply of North America,” a packaging company based in Arkansas—the state where Walmart has its headquarters. (Sigma Supply did not respond to a request for comment.)

Most of that trash had been sitting there for at least eight months, according to activists from Greenpeace Malaysia who discovered the unlicensed dumpsite last year. Ben Muni, a Greenpeace campaigner, said the piles of unsheltered waste may eventually be burned illegally or left to decompose in the heat and humidity—a process that could take hundreds of years. “This is probably just going to be left here to rot,” he said.

For months, Greenpeace has been sounding the alarm about Malaysia’s plastic crisis.

“America and other wealthy nations are sweeping their waste to Malaysia and other countries,” said activist Heng Kiah Chun. “Southeast Asia shouldn’t be the world’s dumping ground.”

The filthy secrets of the multibillion-dollar global recycling industry became apparent in the summer of 2017, when China—which had for decades been the world’s largest importer of recyclables—suddenly announced its intention to close its borders to 24 categories of recyclable waste, including several kinds of scrap plastic and mixed paper. The ban was enforced on Jan. 1, 2018, and its effects rippled around the globe.

The move hit hard in the US, which has historically exported about one-third of its recyclables annually, most of it to China. Across the US, mountains of plastic, paper and other materials began piling up at recycling facilities or ended up in landfills. A number of municipalities—from Sacramento, California, to Hooksett, New Hampshire—canceled or significantly curtailed their recycling programs. Cole Rosengren, a reporter for Waste Dive, a DC-based publisher of waste industry news, told HuffPost last July, “There is no state in the country that has not felt at least something because of the [Chinese] ban.”

But US recyclers soon found new buyers and destinations for Americans’ garbage, particularly their plastic waste. Starting in late 2017 and escalating through 2018, Malaysia and other nations in Southeast Asia were flooded with recyclable plastics from the US. The region’s imports from other developed nations like the UK, Germany, Japan and Australia also skyrocketed.

The firehose of trash caught these recipient countries by surprise. None had recycling facilities that remotely compared with China’s, noted Hernandez. In the first half of 2018, imports of plastic trash doubled in Vietnam and increased in Thailand by a staggering 1,370 percent compared with the same period the previous year, according to an October report in the Financial Times. At one point last June, Thailand reportedly had 30,000 containers full of imported plastic waste sitting in its ports because of a lack of capacity and issues with import permits. Vietnam reported some 9,000 idle containers of plastic waste, according to Resource Recycling.

From January to November 2018, Malaysia imported about 435 million pounds of plastic scrap from the US alone, according to data provided by Resource Recycling. Over the same period in 2017, US exporters sent just over 220 million pounds of scrap plastic to Malaysia.

To understand why a country like the US ships so much of its plastic recyclables abroad, one must first understand the complexities of recycling plastic, particularly postconsumer plastic like used food containers and packaging. It’s a notoriously difficult and labor-intensive process—one that’s so complex, in fact, that the bulk of discarded plastics, including the stuff thrown into recycling bins, don’t end up being recycled.

From 1950 to 2015, a staggering 6.9 billion tons of plastics were thrown out worldwide; of that, only an estimated 9 percent has been recycled. In the US the 2018 plastic recycling rate was projected to be an abysmal 4.4 percent.

Experts generally point to two major flaws in the plastic recycling process as the reasons behind these low numbers: The rules about what can be recycled are confusing, and they differ depending on where you live. As a result, many well-intentioned people toss items into the recycling bin that shouldn’t be there.

Sorting, often by hand, is thus a necessary first step before recyclers can process postconsumer plastic. Colored soda bottles need to be separated from clear ones. Plastic bags and cling wrap, known to gum up recycling equipment, have to be fished out. Items heavily contaminated with food bits need to be removed too.

But since sorting is such a labor-intensive exercise, it usually doesn’t make economic sense for many recyclers in the US and other developed countries.

So-called clean plastic recyclables like industrial plastic waste are mostly recycled in the United States, but “easily 80 percent of America’s mixed plastics are getting sent abroad,” said Powell. “They’re too dirty to do anything with [here] in a cost-effective way.”

For decades, China bought this waste for cheap from America and other developed nations to feed its flourishing manufacturing sector. Before its 2018 ban, China processed about 45 percent of the world’s plastic waste. From 1992 to 2016, the country imported more than 110 million tons of plastic scrap.

But as its pace of manufacturing slowed and labor costs rose, Beijing’s desire to be the world’s recycling bin rapidly diminished. Much of the imported recyclable waste was so contaminated that it could not be recycled anyway, Chinese officials complained, and piles of imported waste were ending up in China’s landfills and polluting the country’s waterways.

“Recycling is such a moral gray area,” said Adam Minter, a recycling expert and the author of Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade. “When you put your recyclables in the bin, you want it to feel green, but it’s really very complicated. If you think you’re not wasting resources and not making an environmental or social impact, then you clearly don’t understand what’s happening.”

This moral grayness has been thrown into sharp relief in Malaysia, where hundreds of plastics recyclers from China—lured by cheaper labor and less stringent environmental regulations—have relocated their operations in the aftermath of the Chinese ban.

Activists say these Chinese recyclers have been setting up factories, often illegally, across Malaysia and have been processing and disposing of waste without regulatory oversight. Whatever they manage to recycle is allegedly flowing back to China, where it’s used for manufacturing. “China still needs a lot of raw materials,” Minter said. 

“You have to understand that recycling is really about manufacturing, and it’s only about manufacturing,” continued Minter, whose family has operated a scrap business in Minnesota for several generations. “We’ve come to see recycling as this environmental thing that’s dusted with green fairy dust—but [recyclables] are really raw materials, and the reason they went to China in the first place is because all the manufacturing was happening there. And it continues to go there now because manufacturing is still happening.” 

A Malaysian environment official explained that while legal recyclers may be unwilling to import contaminated plastic recyclables, unauthorized recyclers have no such qualms. “It’s lucrative for them,” said Phee Boon Poh, the chairman of the state environment committee in Penang, speaking from his office in February. 

Processing contaminated plastic recyclables requires more sorting (to sift out the good stuff) and incurs additional costs for legal recyclers, which need to meet regulatory requirements and shell out cash to discard whatever waste they aren’t able to recycle.

Unlicensed recyclers, however, can set up factories and hire workers cheaply, Phee said, and illegally access groundwater for the recycling process. Without any environmental regulations to worry about, the recyclers can leave contaminated water untreated — which, Phee said, has been affecting local waterways and biodiversity. Leftover recyclables that can’t be processed can then be dumped illegally (in other words, for free). Often these dumped plastics are then burned, their noxious fumes polluting neighborhoods and sickening residents.

“These naughty boys are importing a lot of what’s basically just rubbish,” said Johnson Lai, a licensed recycler based near the Malaysian capital, Kuala Lumpur, referring to the rash of illegal recycling facilities that have cropped up around the country. “The recyclables they import, they’re [so contaminated and poorly sorted] that only approximately 30 percent of it can be used.” The rest ends up getting dumped. 

At one illegal dumpsite in Jenjarom, a small industrial town about 40 miles south of Kuala Lumpur, HuffPost found plastic waste from the US, the UK, Germany and elsewhere in Europe piled high in charred heaps, the result of an attempted burning. In one blackened bale, apparently from America, various colorful plastic bags and packaging items had melted into one another—a 7/11 bag with a US phone number on it for potential franchisees to call, a torn Sour Patch Kids packet singed on one side and a wrapper from an Arizona green tea container. “An American Company,” the wrapper boasted.

Local firefighters went to this site a few weeks earlier to put out the blaze after plumes of white smoke, thick with pollutants, choked the surrounding neighborhood. The people who set the trash alight—presumed to be the unlicensed recyclers who dumped it there — were never caught.

“They’ve given us legal recyclers such a bad name,” Lai lamented. “It’s been very bad for business.”

But these “naughty boys” in Malaysia aren’t the only ones to blame for this crisis. According to Powell, recycling exporters in the US should be scrutinized as well.

Exporters have been known to hide bales of contaminated plastic waste in shipments that contain otherwise clean plastics, he said. “American recycling processors may not want to pay to dump stuff in landfills here. It could be easier and cheaper to just shove them in the back of a container and ship them off.”

Low shipping costs could be encouraging this behavior, Powell said.

Shipping containers are constantly arriving in the US from Asia, “filled with Nike shoes and Apple phones,” he said. But since American goods aren’t getting shipped back to Asia in the same quantities, freight companies—rather than ship empty containers—offer low rates to recycling exporters to ship recyclables there.

“It might cost $3,000 for a 24-ton container to be shipped from Hong Kong to Los Angeles, but the return journey could cost as low as $400 or even $200,” Powell said. “It costs more money to move a bale across Los Angeles than from the Los Angeles pier to Hong Kong.”

Yeo Bee Yin, Malaysia’s minister of environment, said she had no clue just how much plastic waste was being traded globally—that is, until bales upon bales of the stuff began appearing on her country’s shores.

“We didn’t feel the impact of just how much trash we have in the whole world until China banned it,” she said from her office in Putrajaya. “It wasn’t just a wake-up call for us. It was a wake-up call for the world.”

Yeo was appointed to her post last year after embattled Prime Minister Najib Razak’s Barisan Nasional party, which had ruled Malaysia for over 60 years, was ousted in the national elections.

There were, quite literally, fires for her to fight from Day One. Malaysians across the country complained of plastics being dumped and illegally burned in their neighborhoods. In Jenjarom, a group of community activists raised the alarm after locals, including children, began suffering en masse from headaches, respiratory problems, skin allergies and other ailments. Activists blamed the illnesses on the incessant and widespread burning by unlicensed recyclers around town.

One resident-turned-activist, Pua Lay Peng, said she noticed fewer butterflies and other insects on her walks around Jenjarom. “The sky was always hazy,” she said. “I felt so lethargic all the time.”

Since Yeo took office, she and her ministry have shuttered more than 130 illegal plastic waste recycling facilities, many of them in Jenjarom. Several of these recyclers have been charged in court and slapped with significant fines. She has vowed to be tough on unlicensed operators and said Malaysia is putting together new recycling-related regulations to ensure the country never becomes the “world’s dumping ground” again.

Malaysia, like Thailand and Vietnam, temporarily banned the import of plastic scrap last year. Yeo said that the ban will eventually be lifted but that the new regulations—which will be permanent and are slated to be introduced in the coming months—will limit the amount of contaminated plastic scrap allowed into the country. The rules governing recycling permits will also be strengthened, she said.

But activists have expressed skepticism about Malaysia’s plan to eradicate illegal recyclers. “The problem will be the same because enforcement and monitoring will be weak,” said C.K. Lee, a Jenjarom resident and community activist. “If they couldn’t properly enforce the earlier regulations, what makes them think they can do it now with even more rules?”

On a bright Saturday morning in February, Lee and other local activists alerted HuffPost to an illegal dumpsite that had been set alight on a Jenjarom palm oil plantation. Plumes of toxic smoke mushroomed out of the burning piles of plastic scrap. Local firefighters, none of them wearing masks, were already on site when we arrived, struggling to put out the blaze.

One firefighter told HuffPost that plastic fires are notoriously difficult to extinguish. Plus, since many of them in Malaysia are started in isolated areas, finding water to put them out can be an additional challenge. The fire we saw that morning took the firefighters hours to douse, after multiple trips back to the fire station to refill their water tanks.

“I wish the ministers could come here to see this for themselves,” said Pua, gesturing at the clouds of smoke as she covered her face with a mask.

Exacerbating the situation is the apparent resilience of the network of unlicensed recyclers. Akin to the Hydra from Greek mythology, two seem to appear for each one cut down.

While the illegal recycling activity was largely limited to the southern part of Peninsular Malaysia (like the town of Jenjarom and its surroundings) in early to mid-2018, that activity has steadily traveled north (to Ipoh and beyond) as the government has cracked down on unlicensed operators.

“They haven’t disappeared,” said Pua. “They just move somewhere else.”

Still, Yeo said she’s confident that Malaysia will soon be able to get the situation under control. But, she stressed, the conversation cannot stop there.

“This is a global problem” that requires a global solution, she said. “Yes, we can solve this domestically here in Malaysia, but we are all sharing the same ocean. The trash may end up in neighboring countries … and it will eventually come back to us. These are transboundary issues.”

Yeo said an international treaty aimed at making the global movement of plastic scrap more equitable and transparent is a critical and necessary step forward.

She said Malaysia supports a 2018 proposal from Norway that suggested adding plastic scrap to the list of materials covered by the Basel Convention, a 1992 treaty on the movement of hazardous waste between nations.

If such an amendment is approved, there would be stricter controls over the movement of plastic scrap across borders, and countries would not be allowed to export such materials to nations lacking the technical capacity to manage and dispose of that scrap in an environmentally sound manner. 

It would also mandate that exporting countries seek consent from receiving nations before shipping the scrap. “It would give the recipient country an opportunity to say ‘no’—instead of being surprised, like in the case of Vietnam and Thailand, which were shocked when plastic waste started piling up last year,” said Hernandez.

For the United States, the world’s top exporter of plastic scrap, such an amendment could have an even greater impact. Though 185 countries and the European Union are parties to the Basel Convention, the US is not. If the amendment is approved, “many Basel Convention countries would be barred from accepting scrap plastic from non-party countries,” whether they give consent or not, Resource Recycling noted last year.

Yeo said citizens need to press their governments to embrace such an amendment or a treaty similar to it. 

“The citizens of the developed world need to demand that their governments be transparent about the way they track their waste. Where exactly is your trash going? Where is your plastic going?” she said.

“[What] irritates me is the injustice. The injustice seeing people in the developing world suffering from the rubbish [originating] in developed countries. I don’t think citizens of these countries know what’s happening, maybe even lawmakers don’t know,” she added.   

Yeo, who recently introduced an initiative to ban all single-use plastics in Malaysia by 2030, said people the world over also need to fundamentally change their relationship with plastic.

As the world’s population continues to balloon, the need to dramatically reduce plastic consumption will become ever more pressing, she said. One way to achieve this is to find viable, more sustainable alternatives to the ubiquitous material; improving recycling technology and infrastructure worldwide is also key, she added.

“It cannot be business as usual,” Yeo said.

This story is part of a series on plastic waste, funded by SC Johnson. All content is editorially independent, with no influence or input from the company.

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