Malaysia is increasingly becoming a major destination for the world’s recyclable plastic waste, with the country taking in over hundreds of thousands of tonnes after China stopped accepting such refuse this year.

According to The Guardian, the US shipped over 157,299 metric tonnes of plastic waste to Malaysia in the first six months of the year, representing a 273 per cent increase year-on-year.

Malaysia’s neighbour, Vietnam, also took in more over the same period, albeit just 71,220 tonnes or a 46 per cent increase compared to the same period in 2017. Thailand is another growing victim.

Citing data that a Greenpeace investigative unit extracted from the US census bureau, the British outlet reported that US shipments of plastic waste to China plunged 92 per cent while those destined  for Hong Kong fell 77 per cent in the same period as shipments here skyrocketed.

John Hocevar, Oceans campaign director for Greenpeace USA, told The Guardian that China’s decision to ban such imports has exposed the “enormous” scale of the world’s plastic waste problem and the lack of a viable solution to this.

“The average person when they put a piece of plastic in a [recycling] bin, they assume it is being recycled, not being shipped to China or now to south-east Asia, where it will possibly be incinerated or landfilled,” he was quoted as saying.

While an ethical and regulatory concern for countries shipping the waste out, the problem has real and immediate ramifications for destination countries such as Malaysia.

The US is the now third country shown to be routing its plastic waste here, after previous reports revealed that the UK, New Zealand and Australia have all increased the bulk of the recyclable wastes sent to Malaysia.

Last month, RadioNZ said New Zealand’s shipment of such material here tripled in the first half of 2018. Australia’s plastic waste also regularly reached Malaysia.

In July, British public spending watchdog National Audit Office’s (NAO) latest report showed that about 250,000 tonnes of plastic — used as product packaging — were exported by the UK as waste to other countries in 2018’s first quarter. Malaysia accepted 17 per cent of this.

The NAO report noted that China had been the single biggest market for UK’s exports of packaging material for recycling, but said China had this January banned imports of various waste materials due to fears of high contamination levels.

Aside from the concern that Chinese firms were diverting the shipments here, the greater fear is that the illegal local factories are not equipped to recycle the waste and simply burned them.

Residents in various areas of Selangor — where the illegal network of “recyclers” appear to be congregated — have raised health and pollution concerns owing to the improper disposal of such waste.

Authorities here are aware of the issue and are scrambling to address the problem that was previously only tackled by local councils.

Without any policy restricting such imports before this, local authorities had been limited to ferreting out the illegal plants and shutting these down for operating without a licence, but were fighting a losing battle.

Kepong MP Lim Lip Eng previously demanded that local enforcers be punished for allowing such plants to mushroom seemingly overnight and for a no-compromise approach to any illegal “recyclers” found.

He also urged the Customs Department to determine the magnitude of the problem by tracking the amount of recyclable waste shipped here so far from all over the world.

The government has since responded by imposing a RM15 levy for each metric tonne of plastic waste imported and temporarily halted the issuance of approved permits to bring such material until October 23.