From grubby packaging engulfing small South-East Asian communities to waste piling up in plants from the United States to Australia, China’s ban on accepting the world’s used plastic has plunged global recycling into turmoil.
For many years, China received the bulk of scrap plastic from around the world, processing much of it into a higher quality material that could be used by manufacturers.
But at the start of 2018, it closed its doors to almost all foreign plastic waste, as well as many other recyclables, in a push to protect the local environment and air quality, leaving developed nations struggling to find places to send their waste.
“It was like an earthquake,” Arnaud Brunet, director-general of Brussels-based industry group The Bureau of International Recycling, said.“China was the biggest market for recyclables. It created a major shock in the global market.”
Instead, plastic is being redirected in huge quantities to South-East Asia, where Chinese recyclers have shifted en masse.
With a large Chinese-speaking minority, Malaysia was a top choice for Chinese recyclers looking to relocate, and official data showed plastic imports tripled from 2016 levels to 870,000 tonnes last year.
In the small town of Jenjarom, Selangor, plastic processing plants suddenly appeared in large numbers, pumping out noxious fumes day and night.
Huge mounds of plastic waste, dumped in the open, piled up as recyclers struggled to cope with the influx of packaging from everyday goods from as far afield as Germany, the United States and Brazil.
Residents soon noticed the acrid stench over the town – the kind of odour that is usual in processing plastic, but environmental campaigners believe some of the fumes also come from the incineration of plastic waste that was too low quality to recycle.
“People were attacked by toxic fumes, waking them up at night. Many were coughing a lot,” said local resident Pua Lay Peng.
“I could not sleep, I could not rest, I always felt fatigued,” the 47-year-old added.
Pua and other community members began investigating and by mid-2018 had located about 40 suspected processing plants, many of which appeared to be operating secretly and without permits.
Initial complaints to authorities went nowhere but they kept up pressure and eventually the government took action.
Authorities started closing down illegal factories in Jenjarom and announced a nationwide temporary freeze on plastic import permits.
Thirty-three factories were closed down, although activists believe many have quietly moved elsewhere in the country. Residents say air quality has improved but some plastic dumps remain.
In Australia, Europe and the United States, many of those collecting plastic and other recyclables were left scrambling to find new places to send it.
They face higher costs to get it processed by recyclers at home and in some cases have resorted to sending it to landfill sites as the scrap has piled up too quickly.
In mainland China, imports of plastic waste have dropped from 600,000 tonnes per month in 2016 to about 30,000 a month in 2018, according to data cited by a new report from Greenpeace and environmental NGO Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives.
Once-bustling centres of recycling have been abandoned as firms shifted to South-East Asia.
South-East Asian nations affected early by the China ban – including Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam – have taken steps to limit plastic imports, but the waste has simply been redirected to other countries without restrictions, such as Indonesia and Turkey, according to the Greenpeace report.
With only an estimated 9% of plastics ever produced recycled, campaigners say the only long-term solution to the plastic waste crisis is for companies to make less and consumers to use less.
Greenpeace campaigner Kate Lin said: “The only solution to plastic pollution is producing less plastic.”