Where your plastic waste really ends up

Where your plastic waste really ends up: British household rubbish is found stacked high at illegal dump sites in Malaysia for ‘recycling’

  • Packaging for UK products was found discarded at dump sites across Malaysia 
  • The Asian country has become the world’s top destination for plastic exports 
  • Malaysia’s recycling system is under strain after China banned plastic imports

Rubbish from the UK exported as recycling has been found thrown in illegal dump sites in Malaysia.

Packaging for products familiar to British customers – including Fairy dishwasher tablets and Yeo Valley yoghurt– were among the rubbish strewn across a number of sites thousands of miles away, a Greenpeace Unearthed investigation has revealed.

It comes as the Environment Agency embarks on a probe into allegations of fraud in the UK’s recycling exports system, including claims that exported plastic waste isn’t being recycled.

Malaysia has become the top destination for plastic recycling after China, until then the world’s largest importer of such materials, banned plastic imports at the start of 2018. 

Rubbish from the UK exported as recycling has been found thrown in illegal dump sites in Malaysia

Packaging for products familiar to British customers – including Fairy dishwasher tablets and Listerine mouthwash – was found strewn thousands of miles away 

The UK exported more than 88,000 tonnes of plastic scrap to Malaysia between January and August this year – more than a quarter of the UK’s total plastic scrap exports.  

Malaysia’s recycling system was left unable to cope with the sudden influx of plastic from the UK and other countries – and the country has now announced restrictions on plastic imports. 

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When Greenpeace went to investigate, it found packaging from numerous British brands amongst a 10ft tall pile of rubbish at a dump site that spans almost three acres outside the town of Jenjarom, an hour’s drive from Kuala Lumpur.

Alongside plastic waste from Spain, France, Germany, Ireland, Japan and Australia were recognisable UK brands including Tesco Finest, Fairy and Yeo Valley – with use-by dates indicating they had been left there in recent months.

A Flora lid was found amongst plastic waste in a closed-down recycling facility next to a dump in Jenjarom, an hour’s drive from Kuala Lumpur

Household plastic waste from the UK was found among the piles of rubbish at a dump site in Ipoh

In a nearby recycling facility – shut down months ago – ripped recycling bags from local authorities in the UK were found among plastic waste from the UK and Europe.

They had the logos of three London councils (Kensington and Chelsea, Hammersmith and Fulham, and Tower Hamlets) as well as local authorities in Essex (Castle Point and Basildon). 

Investigators also found a magazine wrapper addressed to a resident of Northallerton, which falls under Hambleton council’s remit. 

All the local authorities told Greenpeace their contractors handled recycling materials in line with EU laws, but one, Basildon, acknowledged that its recycling bags had been exported to Malaysia for a while earlier this year.

An M&S Food Hall carrier bag and packaging for Country Life butter was found at the Ipoh site

According to Greenpeace, residents in the Jenjarom area have complained that the fumes from recycling plants operating without the correct permits have kept them awake at night and polluted the nearby river.

They are also concerned about the effect the fumes could have on their health.

‘There are still some fish but you wouldn’t want to eat them… We used to take wild tiger prawns from the river. Now there are none left. There’s something wrong,’ a former civil servant told Greenpeace. 

In nearby Klang – which has Malaysia’s largest port and is the entry point for most of the country’s imports – sacks of discarded plastics were found in an abandoned industrial complex.

Piles of rubbish are regularly dumped and burned by the roadside.

Around 140 miles north in Ipoh, packaging for McCain’s oven chips, Yazoo yoghurt drinks, Heinz baked beans and Tesco carrier bags were found in piles that were 20ft high.

Discarded UK and European plastics were also found in a largely abandoned industrial complex in Klang

Ripped open recycling bags from Hammersmith and Fulham, Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, and Castlepoint local councils

A shrine in the closed-down recycling facility where the recycling sacks from UK local authorities were found

Satellite images of the area show the dump site has ballooned in the past year.

EU rules dictate that materials can only be exported for recycling if the plastic will be handled in conditions that are broadly similar to those in Europe.

But according to Greenpeace, multiple sites in Malaysia have the plastics stored in tropical conditions that experts say mean they can no longer be recycled.   

Mary Creagh, Labour MP and chair of the environmental audit committee, said: ‘These shocking pictures show that when we throw things away, there is no such thing as away.

‘The UK’s broken recycling system exports waste with no guarantee that it will be recycled.

‘The government must urgently reform the system to support a domestic UK recycling industry, creating jobs in every nation and region of the UK, and make sure that what goes in the recycling bin gets recycled.’

A satellite image taken on January 29 last year shows the size of a site in Ipoh, Malaysia

Another satellite image of the same site taken on March 8, 2018, after the Chinese ban on plastic imports came into effect shows the amount of rubbish has almost doubled


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