How scrap from California ended up in a junkyard 8,500 miles away, broken down manually by workers earning $10 a day, is the story of the reshaping of the global garbage and recycling system. For three decades the United States and other industrialized nations have shipped most of their plastic waste overseas — primarily to China, where cheap labor and voracious factories dismantled the scrap and turned it into new plastic goods.
Malaysia became the top destination for U.S. plastic waste, importing more than 192,000 metric tons in the first 10 months of 2018 — a 132% jump from the year before, according to federal government data. Thailand took in more than four times as much American plastic as it did in 2017, Taiwan nearly twice as much.
These and other countries have since announced restrictions on new plastic waste imports, but factories are struggling to handle what’s already arrived. In Klang and Kuala Langat, drab industrial districts close to Malaysia’s busiest shipping hub, giant sacks overflowing with old soda bottles, desktop phones, laptop shells and fan blades have piled up in warehouses and abandoned lots. “They have become a dumping ground,” said Heng Kiah Chun, a Malaysia campaigner for the environmental group Greenpeace.“Even before the China ban, Malaysia struggled to deal with its domestic waste. It has no capacity to handle waste from other countries.”
The problem in Malaysia is not the inflow of so-called clean plastics — like the electric meters — which are crushed into pellets and resold to manufacturers, mostly in China, to make cheap clothing and other synthetic products. It is the large quantities of low-grade scrap — soiled food packaging, tinted bottles, single-use plastic bags — that China has rejected, and that requires too much processing to be recycled cheaply and cleanly. Most of it has ended up in landfills or openly incinerated in violation of local laws, according to residents and environmental groups. One night in February, residents in Jenjarom, a town southwest of the capital Kuala Lumpur, awoke to a pungent chemical smell and fumes that provoked hacking coughs. “It smelled like burning polyester,” said Lay Peng Pua, 46.