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Tracing down the rabbit hole of plastic containers in Malaysia

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Karolina Lagercrantz from the Ida C. & Morris Falk Foundation
|   September 6, 2021

We need sustainable and effective waste management to protect our environment and in order to develop a working circular economy. In a circular economy, recycling can play a pivotal role in waste conversion into usable resources.

However, recycling is not always possible. Most materials that are recycled today are degraded and cause pollution in the recycling process and, for some materials, recycling is even more energy-intensive than new production. Instead, recycling must be regarded as one component of a circular economy, which has to be complemented by reduction and substitution. 

The limitations of recycling as a solution to our plastic overconsumption are particularly striking in Southeast Asia. The need to complement the recycling of plastics with upstream solutions that reduce its use is more essential now than ever. 

Tracing down the rabbit hole of plastic containers in Malaysia

Since curbside recycling programs were introduced in the 1980s, recycling has morphed into an industry worth billions of dollars. Indeed, recycling plastics is a costly operation (disposing of 1 ton of plastic bottles in China costs only US$200 compared to US$500 in Europe), which, in a globalized economy, means that many countries choose to outsource their plastic waste elsewhere. 

For decades, high-income countries such as France, USA and Japan sold much of their own plastic waste to China in order for it to be recycled there. But, in December 2017, China closed its borders to foreign plastic recycling. It is at this moment that we begin our story on plastic waste in Malaysia. 

Malaysia’s plastics recycling under global pressure 

Since China retreated from its role as the world’s recycling facility, countries turned elsewhere, more precisely, they turned to ASEAN. The amount of imported plastic waste doubled in Vietnam and increased by 1,000% in Thailand. Southeast Asia and the country of Malaysia in particular quickly became the epicenter for international plastics recycling. In 2018, Malaysia imported over 400 million pounds of plastic waste coming from the US alone.

On the surface level, a global economy for the recycling of plastics might seem like a good option. After all, if there could be an increase in the market for recycled plastics and if the recycling process is done properly, it could reduce high rates of plastic pollution while putting less pressure on virgin materials to produce brand new plastic products. Unfortunately, this is far away from today’s reality.

In Malaysia, recycling is lagging far behind other countries and the country does not have the facilities necessary to recycle much of its own plastics, even less so the plastics of others. As Malaysia’s Waste Management Association’s chairman Ho De Leong explained to the Star, “plastic can be highly contaminated with other undesirable waste, which local facilities are ill-equipped to handle. Of course, since recycling or proper disposal in landfills is expensive, importers of plastics for recycling often dump the waste illegally”.

Indeed, Investigations by Greenpeace Malaysia have revealed that shredded plastic disposed at several dumpsites in Malaysia contain a range of toxic pollutants, which have been contaminating the surrounding environments during their storage or recycling processes.

A clear need to go Upstream 

While the imported waste exacerbates the problem, Malaysia itself already produces more plastic waste than it can recycle.

Research shows that plastic waste generation in Malaysia has more than doubled in a span of fewer than 15 years due to a so-called “throwaway culture” that has evolved as the country’s income increases. For example, recent studies show that 11% of the 38,000 tonnes of waste generated in Malaysia daily comprises diapers alone. 

Given the enormous stream of plastic waste both from abroad and within the country itself, the need to re-think the use of plastics literally grows bigger day by day. Greenpeace Malaysia has called for a plastic pollution reduction plan to reduce unnecessary single-use plastic in phases within Malaysia itself, to set up clear reduction targets of single-use plastic in accordance with an action plan that focused on developing alternatives based on systems of refill and reuse, while simultaneously increasing the recycling rate. 

It is clear that a circular approach, based on a so-called “Upstream innovation” in which plastic waste is never produced, to begin with, is needed in Malaysia. As a middle-income country, Malaysia has to decrease overall plastic consumption and must simultaneously invest in sorting and recycling infrastructure.

Looking forward to circular solutions beyond recycling

Momentum is growing to combat this issue. Circular economy in Malaysia is still an unofficial long-term goal, with a lack of adequate legal framework. Malaysia has prepared circular economy roadmaps to prioritize plastics-related policies and investments in target sectors and locations. Leading global brands and retailers have made voluntary commitments to make their plastic packaging 100% reusable, recyclable, or compostable by 2025.

Early 2019, in an attempt at regulating the waste issue, Malaysia returned a total of 150 containers of plastic waste to countries around the world, such as the United Kingdom, France and Spain. This move is a great first step to put pressure on these high-income countries to take steps to rethink their plastic consumption and make systemic changes.

Yet, the potential for positive action against plastic waste remains untapped within Malaysia itself. For example, in Malaysia, a huge portion of plastic waste comes from the food and beverage industry. Consumer Packaged Goods (CPG) make up about 42% of plastic waste in Malaysia. 

The World Bank Group studies show models such as reuse and refill are at a nascent stage and currently aren’t scalable enough to match the magnitude of the growing plastic waste problem. Alternative materials based on renewables rather than fossil fuel-based feedstocks are still a niche market not yet supported by local standards or infrastructure. Many circular, upstream solutions already exist and are just waiting to be launched.

In order to understand Malaysia’s Circular transition, ICM Falk will explore an upstream solution to CPG plastic containers in the second part of this series. To stay updated, follow us on Linkedin and Facebook.

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About the ICM Falk Foundation

The Ida C. & Morris Falk Foundation is a private, 501c3 family foundation that seeks to support innovation, entrepreneurship, and leadership that drives positive, equitable, and sustained impact for the world’s communities and ecosystems. Building on the global commitment to the Circular Economy, the Foundation is now actively focused on innovative solutions that contribute to the reduction of waste production and pollution within Asia.