PULAU INDAH (Selangor) • Hundreds of sacks filled with plastic waste from the United States, Britain, South Korea and Spain spill onto the streets of an industrial zone in Pulau Indah, an island town just an hour's drive from Kuala Lumpur and home to Malaysia's biggest port.
The stench of burning plastic and fumes from nearly a dozen recycling factories waft through the neighbourhood, even as more container-loads of plastic waste are unloaded.
Pulau Indah - ironically, the name means "beautiful island" in Malay - is one of many towns in Malaysia where illegal plastic recycling factories have popped up in recent months as the nation became the top choice for plastic waste exporters from around the world.
The trigger for this dumping deluge was a Chinese ban on waste imports from the beginning of this year, which disrupted the flow of more than 7 million tonnes of plastic scrap a year. Malaysia quickly became the leading alternative destination, importing nearly half a million tonnes of plastic waste between January and July from just its top 10 source-countries. Dozens of plants have opened up to handle that waste, many without an operating licence, using low-end technology and environmentally harmful methods of disposal.
"The situation is getting worse, especially with more and more illegal plastic recycling factories," Ms Yeo Bee Yin, Malaysia's Minister of Energy, Technology, Science, Climate Change and Environment, told Parliament last week.
Used plastic is recycled into pellets, which are then used to manufacture other plastic products, but the process comes with pollution risks. Plastic unsuitable for recycling is burned, which releases toxic chemicals into the air. Or it ends up in landfill, potentially contaminating soil and water sources.
Ms Yeo said she does not want Malaysia to be the "trash can" for developed nations, but Housing Minister Zuraida Kamaruddin, who oversees the waste management department, told Reuters that the government also does not want to miss out on a business that could be worth billions.
The situation is getting worse, especially with more and more illegal plastic recycling factories.
MS YEO BEE YIN, Malaysia's Minister of Energy, Technology, Science, Climate Change and Environment.
Both ministers are members of a government committee studying the options for dealing with the growing pile of plastic waste.
In the Pulau Indah industrial zone, Reuters reporters saw nearly a dozen recycling plants, many of them without signboards or company names, though government data shows only two factories in that area have licences to import plastic waste.
One worker in the industrial zone, who did not want to be identified, said there are as many as eight illegal factories in the zone and many openly burn plastic that cannot be recycled.
"Every night they burn. I see black smoke at night, so I go over and ask... 'Why are you trying to kill me?' They ignore me," he said.
In the nearby district of Kuala Langat, the authorities have found 41 factories operating illegally, many of them run by Chinese companies, said Madam Zuraida.
Malaysia's imports of plastic waste from its 10 biggest source-countries jumped to 456,000 tonnes between January and July, versus 316,600 tonnes purchased in all of 2017, and 168,500 tonnes in 2016. The US, the world's top exporter of plastic waste, sent 178,238 tonnes of such waste to Malaysia between January and July, according to the United Nations' trade database and the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries.
Ms Yeo estimated that the plastic recycling industry would earn Malaysia RM3.5 billion (S$1.16 billion) this year.