Mon, Jan 22, 2018 - Page 8 News List

Southeast Asian plastic recyclers hope to clean up after China ban

By Michael Taylor  /  Thomson Reuters Foundation, KUALA LUMPUR

“Do they [China] care about the global environment or only their own environment because we are land-filling perfectly good materials now because of the actions that they’re taking,” said Adina Renee Adler, senior director for international relations at the Institute for Scrap Recycling Industries in Washington.

The labor-intensive job of taking bales of plastic waste to be broken down, cleaned, separated into different plastic resins and finally made into pellets ready to be reshaped into new products is now expected to fall to Southeast Asian countries.

Malaysia, Vietnam, Indonesia and Thailand are among the Southeast Asian countries that have attracted Chinese investors in the plastics recycling sector over the past year, keen to fill the void left in China, industry officials said.

Most have yet to develop their own domestic recycling collection and public awareness about the issue, but their access to cheap labor and close proximity to China’s manufacturing industries work in their favor.


Preliminary data from the BIR showed imports of plastic waste into Southeast Asia are already rising fast.

Due partly to a ramp-up in shipments in the final quarter of last year, the BIR estimates that annual imports of plastic scrap into Malaysia jumped to 450,000 to 500,000 tonnes last year from 288,000 tonnes in 2016.

Vietnam’s imports last year rose by 62 percent to 500,000 to 550,000 tonnes, while Thailand and Indonesia showed increases of up to 117 percent and 65 percent respectively.

The industry fears, however, that a flood of unregulated plastic waste to these countries could lead to similar problems as those experienced in China, resulting in copy-cat bans.

To avoid this, industry officials urged Southeast Asian nations to tighten health and safety regulations, so that they can properly monitor what plastics enter their countries, and stop illegal practices.

Greenpeace East Asia plastics campaigner Liu Hua wants to see companies use less plastic packaging in the longer-term, but for now, Southeast Asian governments should strengthen environmental controls to limit the spread of hazardous chemical waste and any negative impact on human health, he said.

Steve Wong, executive president of the China Scrap Plastics Association, called for stronger controls on imports, license issuance and environmental inspections of factories.

To date, the world has produced more than 8 billion tonnes of plastic, said Borad at the BIR. Only 9 percent has been recycled, while just under 80 percent has been treated as waste — sent to landfill sites or dumped in the oceans.

As awareness rises over the dangers of allowing plastic waste to end up in the sea where it poisons fish and can enter the human food chain, recycling capacity will need to grow considerably worldwide.

In Malaysia, Seah remembers how his parents were once ashamed they made a living from collecting and reusing scrap, believing it to be a profession that was not respected.

But when his recycling company received an international award for environmental leadership in 2013, it helped change their minds. Southeast Asian nations now face a similar battle to shift perceptions of the recycling industry.

“I don’t believe there is a global plastics pollution problem — there is a global plastics ignorance problem,” said Seah. “It is a substance with a lot of hidden values.”

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