1,800 tonnes of illegal toxic waste in Malaysia: What’s next?

Photo by Esmonde Yong on Unsplash

110 containers of toxic electric arc furnace dust (EAFD) were discovered at Malaysia’s port, Tanjung Pelepas, in June 2020. According to the local news, it was “the biggest shipment of illegal toxic waste” transiting through Malaysia until now. 

Officials at the Port of Tanjung Pelepas (PTP) came across the abandoned containers on Sunday 3rd June. Falsely declaring these as concentrated zinc, the extremely hazardous EAFD was imported into Malaysia. But, due to the dangers of its waste management, the Department of Environment sent it back to Romania.  

Unlike concentrated zinc, EAFD is a by-product of the melting of steel and contains heavy metals such as iron, lead, and chromium. If the real contents of the containers remained unknown, Malaysia could have faced detrimental long-term impacts on its environment. This is because specific waste requires certain disposal standards, and when these are not met, soil or water contamination is likely to occur. However, not only flora, fauna, and microorganisms are impacted. It has also been proven that heavy metals can increase children’s intellectual disabilities, such as behavioural difficulties and learning problems. 

 “Malaysia will not be the world’s garbage bin”

Unfortunately, this is not the first time Malaysia and other South-East Asian countries have been confronted with large amounts of wrongly listed toxic waste. In 2019, 450 tonnes of plastic waste was shipped to Malaysia from countries such as the US, UK, Netherlands, and Canada. The increase in waste imports to Malaysia is associated with China’s announcement in 2018 of no longer accepting plastic waste shipments. Specifically, illegal shipments have become more common, as many toxic and plastic waste export countries are looking for alternative ‘dumping grounds’. Cambodia, the Philippines, and Malaysia have been unwillingly characterised as such. 

Datuk Tuan Ibrahim Tuan Man, Malaysia’s Environment and Water Minister, combats this label with his clear response: “Malaysia will not be the world’s garbage bin.”

The Basel Convention is a treaty that attempts to mitigate these illegal dumpings. Its objective is “to protect human health and the environment against the adverse effects of hazardous wastes.” Yet, its aim is to regulate the transboundary movement of waste that continues to be disregarded by irresponsible waste management. Due to this inefficiency, Greenpeace Malaysia undertook their own investigation and released a report with detailed suggestions for the Malaysian government and the global community. As well as proposing an ‘inclusive rehabilitation plan’ for the Ministries of Environment and Water, Health and Anti-Corruption Commission, they urged for waste trade transparency across the globe. 

Waste trade transparency encourages the confrontation of waste exporters and the sending of toxic materials back to their origin. It also allows for the knowledge of environmental and health impacts by contaminated waste to circulate in the global community. 

Yeo Bee Yin, Malaysia’s Former Minister of Energy, Science, Technology, Environment, and Climate Change, enacted this transparency by urging “developed countries to review their management of plastic and stop shipping garbage to developing countries.” She acknowledged that Malaysia is not the only country frustrated with the unapologetic actions of developed nations and the toll of waste trade on receiving countries. 

To tackle this global issue, the Basel Convention created a new amendment for 2021 that permits the trade of uncontaminated and recyclable non-halogenated polymers. Through these new entries many countries, Malaysia included, are hoping for an accountable world trade of waste. 

Article by Elena Konstanty