Plastic waste poison in soil, water at dangerous levels, warns Greenpeace

The dumpsite in Sungai Muda.

PETALING JAYA: The illegal dumping and burning of plastic waste has led to dangerous levels of hazardous substances and chemicals in Malaysia’s soil and water, according to a Greenpeace report released today.

Soil and water samples collected from July to August 2019 during investigations into plastic dumpsites and recycling facilities in Pulau Indah and Kapar (Klang), Kampung Seri Cheeding (Kuala Langat) and Sungai Muda (Kedah) were sent to the Greenpeace Research Laboratories in Exeter, England, for laboratory analysis.

“A wide range of hazardous chemicals, such as lead and cadmium, were found at these sites,” said Kevin Brigden, senior scientist at Greenpeace Research Laboratories.

“We found evidence of plastic-related chemicals, some of which are now regulated in many countries around the world. These are persistent chemicals. Once released in the environment, they are going to stay there for a long time – especially when they are burned,” he warned.

Brigden was speaking at the online launch of Greenpeace’s The Recycling Myth 2.0 report, which comes two years after the NGO sounded the alarm on illegal dumpsites and waste burning facilities in Malaysia.

The latest study shows that toxic metals such as lead and cadmium are several times above the acceptable limits set by the Department of Environment (DoE). This is of particular concern as they can cause irreversible damage to flora and fauna.

Samples taken from an oil palm plantation at Kampung Sri Cheeding found higher concentrations of lead (2,940-3,780mg/kg) and cadmium (13.8-16.7mg/kg) than usually found in soil in Malaysia.

The DoE’s limits for these two heavy metals in residential soil is 400 mg/kg for lead and 71 mg/kg for cadmium.

Both lead and cadmium accumulate in the body over time, and long-term exposure to lead can damage the nervous system as well as affect the blood system, kidneys, the reproductive system and child development. Long-term exposure to cadmium, meanwhile, can damage kidneys and bones.

“The illegal dumping of plastic waste from over 19 countries worldwide has left an indelible mark on Malaysia and other countries in Southeast Asia,” said Heng Kiah Chun, Greenpeace Malaysia campaigner.

“Aside from the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, communities in Selangor and Kedah have another invisible enemy to face – chemical contaminants that remain in our environment with the possibility of entering our food chain.”

Malaysia has become a favourite destination for plastic waste from developed countries after China banned the import of plastic waste in January 2018, with Putrajaya coming down hard on illegal recycling factories importing plastic waste.

A previous investigation by Greenpeace found that some 2,880 tonnes of plastic were exported to Malaysia in the first nine months of 2019 from Italy alone, with nearly half of that going to illegal factories that had no capacity to deal with the plastic.

Around 150 containers of plastic waste were sent back to the UK, France, US and Canada in February, with then energy, science, technology, environment and climate change minister Yeo Bee Yin saying that “Malaysia cannot be the rubbish dump of the world”.

Greenpeace’s most recent findings come despite the government’s shutdown of 218 illegal plastic recycling factories between 2019 and 2020 for not complying with regulations.

Greenpeace recommended that an inclusive rehabilitation action plan be conducted. It must involve local communities for the clean-up and rehabilitation of the polluted sites, especially in areas used for open burning and illegal dumping of imported plastic waste.

It also hoped the relevant government agencies would conduct further environmental investigations into the affected areas, particularly on the risk of leakage of hazardous substances into air, soil and water sources – as well as carry out health impact studies and provide healthcare support to affected residents due to the pollution caused by imported plastic waste.

The NGO also called on the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission to reactivate its environmental corruption initiative, with specific emphasis on plastic pollution and the corruption related to the management of plastic waste.

In terms of legislation, Greenpeace urged Malaysia to amend or replace the Environmental Quality Act 1974 with an environmental protection law, accompanied by more stringent and effective rules, regulations and enforcement, as well as to ensure greater transparency.

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