Nations in South East Asia are returning imported plastic waste to the various countries of origin. On the 28th of May, the Malaysian environment minister announced that it would send back 3,000 tonnes of waste that was rotting, contaminated or was not actually recyclable and had been deliberately mislabelled. This follows an ongoing diplomatic strain between the Philippines and Canada, after it was announced that the former would return 1,500 tonnes of waste to the latter. The Malaysian authorities have similarly identified Canada as a source of the inappropriate waste, along with the United Kingdom, the United States, the Netherlands, China, Spain, Germany, Saudi Arabia, Singapore and France.
The environment minister for Malaysia, Yeo Bee Yin, said that she would not allow her country to become the “dumping ground of the world,” and that they “can’t be bullied by developed countries.” This echoed a statement released by the spokesperson of the Philippines’ president Rodrigo Duterte that “the Philippines as an independent sovereign nation must not be treated as trash by a foreign nation”. Yeo Bee Yin cited the public health issue of contaminated waste, saying that “Malaysians have a right to clean air, clean water and a clean environment to live in.” The climate activist and inspiration for the climate strike movement, Greta Thunberg, tweeted that, “This sums up how we in rich countries in the global north have been treating the rest of the world. Sweeping all of our dirt and trash under someone else’s carpet. Now it appears all the space underneath those carpets are full…”
Much of South East Asia has experienced a huge increase in imports of foreign waste after China stopped accepting it due to environmental concerns. Following this decision, the private companies that deal with waste for national governments looked to Malaysia, the Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam to compensate for the change. Data from Greenpeace shows that imports of plastic waste in Malaysia have increased from 168,500 tonnes in 2016 to 456,000 tonnes in the first six months of 2018. With only 9% of the world’s plastic being recycled, much of it ends up in landfills or is incinerated illegally, which releases toxic gases. Yeo Been Yin announced that Malaysian authorities were “compiling a list of these so-called ‘recycling’ companies” to send to the various national governments.
This issue reflects a growing concern over the imbalance between more and less economically powerful nations in climate issues. As John Hoecevar, of Greenpeace USA, has said, “companies are exploiting developing countries that lack the regulation to protect themselves.” As governments in powerful nations begin to see tackling climate change as politically expedient, they will do anything, no matter the ethical concerns, to advance these interests. This can already be seen in the use of private companies to deal with waste rather than taking it upon themselves as a national responsibility. Many residents of these countries will have separated their waste in the belief that they have done their environmental duty, unaware that such companies are lumping an insoluble burden on those with fewer resources.
As it becomes more apparent that climate change will emerge as a formative policy for governments across the world, it needs to be embraced not only as an environmental issue, but also an ethical one. Ultimately, if governments begin to tackle climate breakdown through the lenses of political gain and national borders, the most vulnerable in the world will suffer, from the poorest nations to those within the richest that lack resources and are discriminated against.