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Why is our Recycling ending up in Malaysia?


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As a society, we feel a great sense of achievement when we sort our recycling. It makes us feel like we're contributing towards the fight against climate change. The plastic bottles and bags we sort and separate will all end up being recycled, reducing pollution, right?

Garbage Waste Container

Image Credit: RitaE from Pixabay


According to The Guardian, 'Millions of tons of waste plastic from British businesses and homes may be ending up in landfill sites across the world'. But is the UK who is supposedly a 'world leader' when it comes to fighting climate change, sending their rubbish to the other side of the world?

The answer is that we are not a world leader. How can that be so when the UK produces 'nearly 5 million tonnes' of the stuff every year. Our answer to this volume of production is to send the plastic waste overseas.

The issue gets worse. Many everyday items which we would presume to be recyclable and therefore are disposed of as such, actually aren't. Take, for example, the disposable coffee cup. Contrary to popular belief, these cups are not made of paper and wax, but paper and plastic.

This particular issue is explored in Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's 'War on Plastic', a new BBC documentary exposing and tackling the UK's problem with rubbish, specifically plastic. Sometimes, as is explained in the clip above, this confusion about what is and isn't recyclable can lead to 'contamination', meaning many materials that could have been recycled have to be chucked away.

So you've got a load of plastic recycling that isn't contaminated, what happens next?

A lot of the time, the UK sends this sorted plastic overseas to be recycled. Obviously, however, that's a lot of plastic. Sometimes this plastic is 'low-grade' and therefore cannot be recycled. This plastic -which doesn't break down- then becomes a big problem.

In 2017, China banned the importation of plastic recycling to its borders. Instead of reducing the amount of plastic the UK produces, as would have been the logical thing to do, the government instead began to look to other countries to take on the responsibility of becoming the UK's dumping ground.  

Plastic Bottles Recycling

Image Credit: Hans from Pixabay

Four months after the ban in China, the amount of 'waste being exported to Malaysia more than trebled, making it the main destination for British plastics'.

According to The Independent, our Environment Secretary 'Michael Gove said the country had to “stop offshoring our dirt” and deal with its plastic waste at home'. However, this exportation of our waste is clearly still happening in vast quantities. 

This was revealed in the BBC documentary 'War on Plastic' when Hugh travels to an illegal plastic dumping site in Malaysia where he discovers M&S and Sainsbury's plastic bags. When showing them to Gove, who is obviously already aware of the problem, the most the secretary could manage was a pathetic "that's terrible".  

According to The Independent, 'A spokesperson for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said the government’s ambition “was to handle more of our waste in the UK” and that “in the short term, alternative markets have been found in response to the China restrictions including Malaysia, Turkey and India” '.

It's now been well over a year and it seems this 'alternative market' has become a long- rather than a short-term solution. 

Now, the Malaysian Environment Minister has spoken out about these actions, describing how the country has become a "dumping ground for wealthier nations". 

Lead Image Credit: Hans from Pixabay

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