Southeast Asia Discovers it Can’t Say No to All Waste Imports

The aftershocks from the earthquake that passed through the US$200 billion recycling industry when China banned most recycling in July of 2017 have emanated out across Southeast Asia, with some countries first touting similar prohibitions but then putting on the brakes when they see what the recycling industry means to their economies.

Despite these strong political announcements, countries are discovering that total bans could cut the lifeline of local recycling industries, which span farmers who also work as waste collectors in Indonesia to owners of plastic recycling companies in the Philippines. The plastics recycling industry alone is expected to hit US$41.6 billion by 2025 according to Orbis Research.

When the Indonesian government decreased paper imports by 70 percent, said Daru Setyo Rini of Ecological Observation and Wetlands Conservation, an Indonesian NGO, at the sidelines this week’s International Zero Waste Cities Conference in Penang, “The people protested the reduction of imports, they will suffer because they don’t have additional income.”

Farmers, Rini said, earn considerable money from working as waste collectors on the side. “It’s a lot. I met one waste-collector, he even can buy a house for his family; he said he built it by loan but he can pay Rp5.5 million (US$354) per month from waste collection.”

Filipino engineer Winchester Lemen, the founder of Envirotech Waste Recycling, said an import ban would affect recycling companies similar to his that have helped keep plastic waste away from landfills by recycling them into usable materials.

Envirotech, for one, turns plastic waste into chairs, an initiative that has also been given thumbs up by President Rodrigo Duterte himself.

“We are gaining a lot in terms of economy, we’re creating more jobs by recycling the plastic waste of other countries and creating it into a more useful form,” he said in an interview.

Duterte ordered a ban on import waste in the Philippines after Manila sent back 69 containers of waste to Canada in May 2019. But the Department of Environment and Natural Resources said in August it would first impose a moratorium on recyclable materials such as plastic and scrap metal. The government will then assess what is the best way to stop the flow of imported waste without causing significant damage on the livelihood of those who are part of the recycling industry.

Tighter inspection, more criteria

China’s decision to ban most waste imports, which went into effect in January 2018, sent trash traders scrambling to other countries, and they turned their eyes to Southeast Asia. Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand, Vietnam and Indonesia then saw an influx of imported waste from the US, Australia, Canada and Europe. The effect was chaos, with recycling prices falling through the floor without markets and with vast amounts of trash piling up in government recycling centers in the US, the EU, Australia and elsewhere as the exporters sought markets. Southeast Asian recyclers were overwhelmed by the enormous volumes diverted from China.

China’s ban came as the quality of recyclable waste also declined due to contamination. Contaminated plastic cannot be recycled, but the waste being sent to Southeast Asia has been falsely labeled or declared at the ports as “recyclables” or clean plastic and scrap.

That is what happened in the Philippines and Malaysia. Some 6,500 metric tons of waste from South Korea were falsely declared as “plastic synthetic flakes,” but when opened at the port of Misamis Oriental in the southern part of the Philippines, the containers were found to hold electronic equipment, diapers and hospital waste.

That was in 2018. Five years prior, 103 containers from Canada which contained adult diapers and household trash were sent to the Philippines, wrongly declared as plastic scrap. In Malaysia, containers found in Port Klang in May 2019 were mislabeled plastic waste but contained household waste.

Although Malaysia said as far back as October 2018 that it would ban waste imports, the government instead has decided to impose restrictions initially and tighten inspection following concerns raised by companies engaged in the recycling industry. The ban will be phased in gradually over three years.

“We are taking a roadmap. We have a very big plastic industry. We do not ban outright, it will affect livelihoods,” said Nagulendran Kangayatkarasu, deputy secretary-general of the Ministry of Energy, Science, Technology, Environment and Climate Change at the Penang conference.

Malaysia, he said, instead added 18 criteria for companies to meet to apply for a permit. Approval to import and process plastic waste falls under the Ministry of Housing and Local Government, but they now work closely with the Ministry of Energy, Science, Technology, Environment and Climate Change to make sure companies meet the criteria.

“They actually regulate the plastic [imports]. The only reason we’re here is because of contaminated plastic,” he said. Foremost of these 18 criteria is that the plastic waste must be homogenous.

Nagulendran said the shipped containers will also be inspected by customs personnel and will not just be scanned as previously. This would entail additional hands and eyes. “Can you imagine the manpower? Prior to this, we are doing the scans, but it’s hard to detect, polymer is polymer.”

A separate body must be formed to inspect shipments at the local level as well.

“We should have a body that will inspect goods, it must be for recycling, if not, do not issue an AP,” said Phee Boon Poh, Penang State executive councilor for the Environment, Welfare and Caring Society. A MYR2,000 ringgit (around $478) fine for companies that misdeclare shipments also should be increased. “MYR 2,000 for wrongful declarations is not enough,” he said. “It should be MYR5,000.”

Focus on local waste

Environmental groups say the government must improve the collection of domestic waste as well so that companies and waste collectors need not look for imported waste to be recycled.

“It’s not a question of the waste not being there to recycle, it’s about effectively collecting local waste,” Jack McQuibban, Cities Programme Coordinator of Zero Waste Europe said.

Aileen Lucero, National Coordinator of the Ecowaste Coalition, said the Philippines already has appropriate law - the Ecological Solid Waste Management Act of 2000 – to improve the local market for recycling. What’s left to be done is for it to be enforced properly.

“If the provisions for establishing a recycling program are to be duly implemented it would facilitate local waste recycling and re-use and would not entail any waste importation in the guise of recyclable plastic materials,” Lucero said.

Beau Baconguis, Regional Plastics Campaigner for the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives in Asia Pacific and Break Free From Plastic, said that the government must also listen to stakeholders from the recycling industry, but the policy endgame should still be an import ban.

“I think government should consult the different sectors affected, that’s why we’re saying just transition, to see what is possible for them, but we also don’t want to postpone it for too long,” she said.

“Recycling is only a temporary solution,” she added, saying that reduction of plastic production and the development of alternative packaging is the way to go. Recycling, after all, does not completely eradicate plastic waste, a huge source of pollution in Southeast Asia.

But, said Meenakshi Raman, president of the Friends of the Earth Malaysia. “I think you cannot depend on dirty industry to continue to sustain jobs and livelihood, So stop bringing in more waste, we have to look at transitioning them away from this kind of mentality.”