The West has been dumping tens of millions of tons of trash in Southeast Asian countries for more than 25 years - now they want to send it back

plastic bottles bangladeshA woman works in a plastic bottle recycling factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh, in October 2018.Mohammad Ponir Hossain/Reuters

  • Rich Western nations have been sending tens of millions of tons of plastic waste in developing Southeast Asian countries for decades.
  • It is not clear how much of it got there. Western companies pay for disposal of trash, contracts which can be accepted by overseas companies who import the waste.
  • This is legal, but authorities allege that the trash often isn't what the senders say it is, and that illegal operators are taking the waste to burn or bury it without permission.
  • A lot of plastics end up being burned in illegal incinerators, which releases highly toxic fumes and cause respiratory illnesses and water contamination issues.
  • Malaysia and the Philippines have recently decided to act, and have sent large shipments of trash back to the West.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

Countries in Southeast Asia, long the recipients of huge consignments of Western trash, have decided to take a stand and send tons of the waste back to where it came from.

The world's richer nations have been exporting waste for at least 25 years, particularly plastic waste which is sorted for recycling, Channel News Asia reported.

Countries like the US, UK, Germany, Canada, and Australia are among those to send large consignments to Asian countries like China, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam.

Many of those countries lack environmental regulations as stringent as those in Western nations, making them an attractive place to dispose of plastics, according to the Guardian.

It is difficult to track exactly how the global waste trade works. But, broadly, Western companies are prepared to pay to dispose of trash, and companies in poorer nations have been accepting the contracts.

However, officials in the affected nations say the trash they receive is often not what it was labeled as (for instance, shipments meant to contain plastic sometimes include household waste like soiled diapers).

They also say that unscrupulous operators in their own countries have been illegally incinerating or burying the trash.

China had for years been the largest dumping ground for plastics, receiving some 600,000 tons of imported plastic waste per month at its height in 2016, Greenpeace said in a report published in April 2019.

malaysia plastic trash heapPlastic waste is piled outside an illegal recycling factory in Jenjarom in Kuala Langat district, Malaysia, on October 14, 2018.Lai Seng Sin/Reuters

For many years, China took much of it and processed it into higher-quality material that could be reused by manufacturers, the South China Morning Post reported.

However, it banned the process last year, diverting vast amounts of trash to other countries still prepared to take it.

Recycled plastics tend to end up rotting in landfills or being burned in illegal incinerators, which releases highly toxic fumes that come with an acrid smell, according to The Guardian and the BBC. Only 9% of the world's plastic end up being recycled, National Geographic reported in 2017.

The illegal dumping and burning has caused respiratory illnesses among residents, water contamination, and crop deaths, Greenpeace said.

Read more: Staggering photos show one small town covered in 19,000 tons of plastic waste

malaysia plastic.JPGA worker sorts recyclable plastic waste at the Prabkaya Recycle Factory in Pathum Thani outside Bangkok, Thailand, on June 7, 2017.Athit Perawongmetha/Reuters

When China banned imports of plastic, Malaysia took up most of the slack.

A HuffPost investigation last year found wrappers and packages from distinctly American companies, like Walmart, sticking out from trash heaps in Malaysia.

An article from China's state-owned CGTN channel said last month that after Beijing's ban, Western trash had turned Southeast Asia into a "global dumpyard."

Many Southeast Asian countries quickly followed in China's footsteps and imposed their own ban on foreign plastic waste from mid-2018, which contributed to a drop but ultimately did not stop the waste flowing into their borders, according to Greenpeace statistics.

Now, those countries are taking their rejection of Western plastic a step further by sending the trash back where they came from.

malaysia return plastic trashContainers filled with plastic waste shipment are seen before sending back to the country of origin in Port Klang on May 28, 2019.Adli Ghazali/Anadolu Agency/Getty

'Treated as trash'

Malaysia - which became the world's largest importer of plastic waste after China's 2018 ban - on Tuesday said it will send 3,000 metric tonnes back to the exporting countries.

Those countries include the US, Japan, France, Canada, Australia, and the UK, Reuters reported.

Yeo Bee Yin, Malaysia's environment minister, said her country will ship 60 containers of trash back, saying that they had been "illegally brought into the country under false declaration," according to Reuters.

"If you ship to Malaysia, we will return it back without mercy," she said.

Yeo argued that the citizens of wealthy nations were largely unaware that their plastic trash was being dumped in Malaysia, where it is destroyed in ways harmful to the environment.

Dozens of mostly illegal recycling factories have cropped up in Malaysia amid the influx of rubbish. Many of those factories have been operating without licenses, and have been ruining the surrounding environment by burning plastics.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte gestures as he delivers his state of the nation address at Congress in Manila on July 24, 2017. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte vowed July 24 to press on with his controversial drug war that has claimed thousands of lives, as he outlined his vision of an 'eye-for-an-eye' justice system. / AFP PHOTO / NOEL CELIS (Photo credit should read NOEL CELIS/AFP/Getty Images)Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte gestures as he delivers his state of the nation address at Congress in Manila on July 24, 2017.NOEL CELIS/AFP/Getty Images

Malaysia's move come weeks after Rodrigo Duterte, the strongman president of the Philippines, threatened to "declare war" on Canada last month if it did not take back 1,500 tonnes (1,650 tons) of rubbish that had been shipped there in 2013 and 2014, the BBC and The Guardian reported.

Canada agreed to take back the rubbish, but missed a May 15 deadline to take back the shipment. Last week Duterte's government sent 69 containers of the trash to Canada, instructing the shipping company to leave them in Canada's territorial waters if it refused to accept.

"The Philippines as an independent sovereign nation must not be treated as trash by other foreign nation," Duterte's spokesman Salvador Panelo told reporters, as cited by Reuters.

plastic bottles indiaWorkers push a bundle of crushed plastic bottles at a recycling factory in Ahmedabad, India, in November 2018.Amit Dave/Reuters

Greenpeace has accused Western countries for exploiting poorer, developing nations with inadequate regulatory framework.

John Hocevar, a campaign director for Greenpeace USA, told The Guardian: "Instead of taking responsibility for their own waste, US companies are exploiting developing countries that lack the regulation to protect themselves."

"It's a problem for the US and other developed countries to produce, often, toxic material which they can't or won't take care of themselves."

Beau Baconguis, a plastics campaigner at the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA), also told the Thomson Reuters Foundation last month: "For the first world, it makes them feel good about their waste supposedly being recycled but in reality it ends up in countries that cannot deal with the waste."

The world's 21 largest plastic exporters - with the three largest being the US, Japan, and Germany - produced 12.5 million tons of plastic in 2016, Greenpeace reported.

That number dropped to 9.99 million tons in 2017, and dramatically to 5.8 million tons in 2018. The new Chinese and Southeast Asian plastic import restrictions likely contributed to the decrease, Greenpeace said.

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