The prickly problem of plastic pollution

“Malaysian town covered in 19,000 tons of plastic waste”, reports Business Insider. “Malaysia, flooded with plastic waste, to send scrap back to source”, reports Japan Times. “China’s recycling ban has sent America’s plastic to Malaysia”, reports CNN.

The above stories show foreign media showering Malaysia with attention… for all the wrong reasons. The tail end of 2018 saw Malaysia becoming the world’s number one destination for plastic waste export. Number one! Let that sink in for a bit. Of all the things we want to be number one at, this is arguably the last.

The reason for this is simple. China, long the world’s dumping ground for plastic abruptly decided it wasn’t going to take most of it in anymore in 2017. This sent shockwaves through the industry, putting pressure on China to force it to reconsider its aggressive stance. However, true to form, capitulation was never an option.

But all the trash had to go somewhere. Enter the fertile and friendly soils of sunny Southeast Asia. Malaysia, Vietnam, Thailand and Indonesia stepped up to take the lion’s share of the trash. And so began our plastic-fueled nightmare.

Malaysia soon became the single largest importer of plastic waste in the world. Spotting the suddenly barren waste recycling ecosystem in China and the potentially blossoming one in Malaysia, plenty of plastic recycling firms started setting up shop in Malaysia; many of them illegally.

The plastic recycling facilities mushroomed in places such as Klang, Kuala Langat and Jenjarom. And with these facilities came trouble. Higher-grade plastic that was valuable was sorted and recycled religiously. But unfortunately a good chunk of the plastic is low-grade and hence isn’t suitable for recycling. And plastic deemed useless is burnt.

As anyone with even the minutest knowledge of plastic would be able to tell you, burning it is a very, very bad idea. The poisonous fumes soon caused local residents much heartache and headache. Protests ensued and opposition against these factories grew, forcing the government’s hand.

The period between July 2018 and April 2019 saw the government cracking down on and closing at least 148 unlicenced plastic recycling factories around the country. It is still going after such factories, which is welcome news.

But closing these facilities alone won’t solve the problem. The reckless burning of “useless” plastic is merely symptomatic of the problem. The problem is we don’t have a good, economical way of dealing with this specific type of trash. The problem, therefore, of some plastic being deemed unworthy of being recycled or reused needs to be remedied.

But before we get to solutions, let’s understand its origins so we know exactly what we’re dealing with. After all, half the battle is won when the problem is accurately identified and clearly understood.

Though plastic made its debut all the way back in the mid-1800’s, it only really exploded onto the scene a 100 years later, right on the heels of the two world wars and in the middle of the Second Industrial Revolution.

The most versatile material ever known to man, plastic’s appeal is as clear as day. It can be molded into myriad shapes and forms, it ranges from transparent to opaque, it can be made hard, soft or anything in between, it doesn’t break or tear easily and most importantly, it can be mass manufactured easily and cheaply.

Thanks to its many attractive attributes, it soon flooded the world. Alarmingly so. It’s only been a mere half-century or so since it really took off and we’ve already produced a mind-blowing 8.3 billion tonnes of plastic worldwide. That’s equivalent to the weight of more than 800,000 Eiffel Towers. Or if you want to get closer to home, it’s equivalent to the weight of more than 13,468 Petronas Twin Towers!

Just to drive the point home further, let’s look at some fast facts that demonstrate the enormity of the problem:

  • A million plastic bottles are bought around the world every minute;
  • In 2016 alone, 480 billion plastic bottles were purchased worldwide. That works out to around 68 bottles bought per year per person;
  • Plastic ingestion kills an estimated 1 million marine birds and 100,000 marine animals every year;
  • An estimated 90% of all birds and fish have plastic particles in their stomach; and
  • A person eats on average 70,000 micro-plastics every year

But the real issue here isn’t how much plastic we’re producing. The real issue is where all this plastic goes at the end of its life. The scary answer: it goes NOWHERE.

Most types of plastic do not biodegrade. That means that once they are discarded and are carted off to their eventual resting place; more often than not in our once pristine oceans or a skyscraper-sized landfill, they stay there. And they stay there for a very, very long time.

Depending on the type of plastic, they can take anywhere from a decade to a staggering 1,000 years to fully decompose.

But enough with this gloominess. Are there any promising tech-propelled solutions on the horizon? We’ll look at that in my next column. Stay tuned.

The views expressed are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.