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Malaysia Sending Plastics Back Is A 'Wake Up Call' For Australia

Over the last year, Malaysia has become the dumping ground for the developed world's plastic waste  -- and it has had enough. 

The country's environment minister on Tuesday announced it has started sending non-recyclable plastic scraps back to the developed countries from where they came.

"Developed countries must be responsible [for] what they send out," Minister Yeo Bee Yin told Reuters.

For decades, China was the world's biggest importer of waste -- so much so that last January, it introduced strict conditions on further imports of certain types of waste, along with contamination limits on recyclable materials.

An Australian flag protrudes from a mound of plastic waste at an imported plastic dumpsite in Mojokerto, East Java. PHOTO: AAP

The so-called 'national sword' policy threw several advanced economies into a messy waste crisis. By July 2018, plastic waste exports from Australia to China and Hong Kong reduced by 90 percent, according to recent data.

"What we saw were streams of mixed plastics and paper left stranded, and so the immediate response was to look for other markets in South-East Asia," Nick Florin, Research Director at the Institute for Sustainable Future told 10 daily. 

According to the Institute, between 80 and 87 percent of Australia's recycled plastic started being sent to Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam. The United States, Britain and Japan are also among the top exporters to Malaysia.

READ MORE: By 2050, There Will Be More Plastic In Our Oceans Than Fish

But the developing country was soon in the midst of an environmental nightmare of its own. Dozens of recycling factories cropped up -- many without an operating licence -- and residents complained of environmental damage.

Most of the plastic scrap coming into the country from developed countries is contaminated and low-quality, rendering it non-recyclable.

Yeo said some of the material was also in violation of the Basel Convention, a U.N. treaty on the trade of plastic waste and its disposal.

"The Malaysian response has been to say their markets and capability to improve the quality of the stream -- so that it is sustainable for manufacturing into new plastic products  -- is limited," Florin said.

An Indonesian scavenger stands in front of burning plastic waste at an imported plastic dumpsite in Mojokerto, East Java. PHOTO: AAP

Florins said Malaysia's response was "fair enough" and a "better alternative" to non-recyclable plastics otherwise being burnt or ending up in landfill.

He hoped it would be a "wake-up call" for Australia.

"Australia has been pretty complacent in terms of our recycling and, specifically, the sorting of our recyclable materials into high-quality, uncontaminated streams suitable for sale in secondary markets," he said. 

"I think this is part of a growing trend and a catalyst for action to do a better job locally." 

What Now?

Yeo said Malaysia has already sent five containers of waste, that had been smuggled into Malaysia, to Spain, where it originated.

She did not identify the smugglers but said an investigation was ongoing, adding more non-recycled plastic will be sent back to its source next week.

While there is no indication that Australian streams will be implicated, Florins said more can be done across the value chain to deal with recycled material generated in our own country.

He called for improvements in source separation through expanding container deposit schemes that encourage recycling at home and work.

"We are seeing some states introduce schemes -- NSW and Queensland, with WA following suit -- and that's an important intervention," he said.

"There’s also a need to grow end markets and support the development of recycling and reprocessing industries locally, where possible.." 

When it comes to waste policy, the states and territories have different regulations and standards that are legislated by their respective governments and managed by the local council.

While Florin acknowledged some  "positive commitments" from various states, he called on "stronger leadership" from the Commonwealth.

"There’s a real need for a push to harmonise and make consistent policies across all jurisdictions," he said, calling on tighter restrictions on waste exports. 

"If you look around the world at the jurisdictions with the highest method of recycling rates and the greatest level of diversion of waste from landfill, frequently they are using much stronger regulatory instruments compared to Australia which is middle of the road," he said. 

With Reuters. 

Featured image: AAP