On the Beat | By Wong Chun Wai

Perilous pile of plastic

AS my plane began its descent onto the runway of Rwanda International Airport in Kigali, the East African country’s capital, a crew member advised passengers to leave their plastic bags on board.

Plastic bags have been banned in Rwanda due to environmental reasons. It’s illegal to import, produce, use or sell plastic bags and plastic packaging, except within specific industries, such as medical (hospitals) and pharmaceutical.

As I lined up to have my passport checked, a large sign, which read “Use of non-biodegradable polythene bags is prohibited,” greeted me. It was the second warning.

After collecting my luggage, it was the Custom officers’ turn to search my bags, to see if I had broken the law. And if I had, the plastic items would have been confiscated and coupled with a fine of US$65 (RM271) per item.

And get this – Rwanda has implemented this law since 2008, a good 11 years ago!

Last month, Tanzania announced that polythene bags would be stripped from commercial use and household packaging from June 1, warning producers and suppliers to dispose their stock in the process.

The ban on plastic means that Tanzania will join the ranks of Kenya, Rwanda, Uganda and Burundi in mitigating the effects of plastic waste.

Meanwhile, here in Malaysia, we are grabbing international headlines for all the wrong reasons.

We rank among the top 10 worst countries for plastic waste pollution, with “most of our plastic waste dumped, a small portion burned, and an even smaller fraction recycled,” according a report.

Malaysia is also the preferred destination for dumping plastic waste, with imports from countries like the United States, Britain, Australia, Germany, France, Switzerland and New Zealand, littering our land. Ironically, these are nations which righteously and proudly lecture the world on environmental cleanliness.

It was reported in 60 Minutes that Australia had more than 71,000 tonnes of such waste shipped to Malaysia in just 12 months.

This scourge began when China, which had been importing and recycling much of the world’s plastic waste for the last 20 years, started to ban such imports at the end of 2017, citing environmental concerns.

To put it bluntly, Malaysia has earned notoriety as “the dumping ground for plastic waste” on a global scale.

Thanks to greedy Malaysians and lax enforcement, this filth has been dumped in rural areas including Jenjarom, a town in Kuala Langat, Selangor, which is now home to 17 million kg of dumped waste.

So, what are we doing about the plastic waste in Malaysia? Last October, Energy, Technology, Science, Climate Change and Environment Minister Yeo Bee Yin said Malaysia was pushing towards becoming a zero single-use plastic country by 2030.

No one expects Malaysia to impose an overnight and arbitrary decision, but the deadline is more than 10 years from now, giving the impression that there’s no great urgency in solving the problem.

It will be even harder for Yeo to push for a complete ban on plastic waste, since too many ministries and authorities are involved.

This is big money business and powerful lobbyists are at work here because the plastic waste industry is worth a staggering RM3.5bil.

Even Housing and Local Government Minister Zuraida Kamaruddin has been quoted saying that “it is rather challenging for the government to ban it entirely.”

She said ministries including Energy, Science, Technology, Environment and Climate Change; International Trade and Industry; and Water, Land and Natural Resources, had collectively agreed on the direction of the plastic waste import conundrum and its business potential.

“We cannot take this matter lightly as it provides a huge contribution to this country’s revenue,” Zuraida told the Dewan Rakyat, in response to a question by Klang MP Charles Santiago, who asked if the ministry would alter the National Solid Waste Management (SWM) Policy to ban all imported plastic waste.

However, she said there were no plans to change the SWM policy for now. In response to Santiago’s claim that there were 100 illegal plastic processing factories still operating in Klang even after the local council revoked their licences, Zuraida said a circular had already been issued to local authorities – notably those in Selangor and Penang – to shut down illegal factories.

“Since the incident was exposed, we have frozen licences to import plastic.

“Each licence application to process these plastic materials needs to get a consent letter from the ministry, and we have not approved any application since then,” she added.

Let’s not count on any swift action to reduce, if not completely ban, plastic waste from our shores.

In China, the stroke of a pen implemented the ban, so shipments were re-routed, and they are now in Malaysia.

And here, we are still hibernating and pondering how “we can phase out the import”.

Of course, no one can instil a time frame. So, for all the rhetoric and bravado, the bottom line is this – we can’t be sure if the government has the willpower to impose such a ban.

The official figures are alarming. Between January and July last year, Malaysia’s plastic waste import from its 10 biggest source-countries jumped to 456,000 tonnes from 316,600 tonnes in the whole of 2017, and 168,500 tonnes in 2016, it was reported.

In the same period, the country imported 195,444 tonnes of plastic waste from the US alone, the synthetic substance’s biggest exporter. This is double the 97,544 tonnes it took in for almost the whole of last year. Singapore exported about 19,000 tonnes of plastic waste to Malaysia last year, too.

So, what did our government do after the public outcry and international condemnation from environmental groups?

In late July, the government imposed a three-month freeze on existing approved permits (AP) for plastic waste imports, following feedback regarding their improper usage and air pollution caused by illegal plastic recycling factories.

A total of 114 recyclers with APs had their revenue stream jeopardised.

And then what happened?

Three months later, the ministry lifted the ban, citing a fear of losing out on economic benefits – and of course, now, we know more than RM3bil is at stake. Never mind its disastrous effects on the health of the people and environment.

Presumably, in a bid to display that action was taken, the government introduced tighter regulations: recyclers had to fulfil 18 new conditions before securing APs, and they’ve been forced to pay a levy of RM15 per tonne of imported plastic waste. It’s hilarious because this is chicken feed to these importers.

Legitimate recyclers – whose services are truly helping the environment – exist, but it’s unfortunate they have been lumped together with the ugly importers, and this is where the authorities must be more consistent in their enforcement efforts.

So, the harsh reality is that we are sitting on top of the world’s largest pile of plastic waste, and we don’t have the gumption to ban it, or ship it to its countries of origin because we stand to lose RM3.5bil.

The most likely outcome from all of this is, we will merely impose a higher levy, and struggle to decide on a timeline for it. And to encapsulate such inaction in an age-old phrase – this stinks!