Hazardous chemicals from US, other countries’ plastic waste adds to Malaysia’s environmental crisis 

by Perry Wheeler

May 27, 2020

Exposing the plastic waste trade's toxic impacts

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia –  In its latest report, The Recycling Myth 2.0, Greenpeace Malaysia found hazardous substances and chemicals that are potentially harmful to human health and the environment through a series of investigations involving water and soil sampling at four sites in Selangor and Kedah, Malaysia [1]. Greenpeace Malaysia released new findings today on the long-term effects of a broken recycling system, more commonly known as the global plastic waste trade. The report comes two years after sounding the alarm on illegal dumpsites and burning facilities that suddenly cropped up in several parts of Malaysia.

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

Samples of material covering large areas of the ground at sites where plastic waste has been burned were found to be composed of shredded plastic, instead of soil. Testing showed that these contained brominated flame retardants. In addition, they contained high concentrations of  heavy metals such as cadmium and lead, which can accumulate in the bodies of exposed communities and organisms over time. With long-term exposure, lead can cause damage to the brain and the nervous system, whereas cadmium can cause damage to the kidneys, lungs, and bones [2].

Water sampling of surface waters from nearby riverbanks and canals contained chemical contaminants [3] according to findings from Greenpeace Research Laboratories.

The Malaysian government shut down 218 illegal plastic recycling factories between 2019 and 2020 for not complying with regulations [4]. At the same time, collaborative efforts between Malaysia and international governments resulted in the repatriation of 150 containers, totaling 3,737 metric tonnes of illegal plastic waste [5] (or about one-third the weight of the Eiffel Tower).

“The United States cannot continue to export its plastic pollution problem to other countries,” said Greenpeace USA Oceans Campaign Director John Hocevar. “It is clear that we cannot recycle our way out of the pollution crisis, as COVID-19 has only further complicated recycling efforts around the world. It is time for corporations to stop pretending that we can produce endless quantities of single-use plastic and tackle plastic pollution simultaneously. We must phase out single-use plastics and shift toward clean and safe reusable systems immediately.”

“When plastics are exported from one country to another they can bring with them a wide range of hazardous chemicals,” explained Dr. Kevin Brigden, senior scientist of Greenpeace Research Laboratories. Adding that, “Improper storage and treatment can later release these chemicals into the local environment, and burning can even generate new hazardous chemicals.”

Investigations were carried out collaboratively among Greenpeace offices both locally and internationally. These include Greenpeace teams from Malaysia, Germany, Hong Kong, and Italy as well as Greenpeace Research Laboratories in the United Kingdom.

Malaysia’s uphill battle with plastic waste took a turn for the worst when China banned plastic waste imports in January 2018 [6], mostly coming from countries like the United States, Japan, the United Kingdom, Germany, Australia, and Italy among others.



The Recycling Myth 2.0 report can be downloaded here.

The technical report can be downloaded here.

Images can be accessed here.

[1] The sites revisited in Selangor were located in Pulau Indah and Kapar in Klang, as well as Kampung Sri Cheeding in Kuala Langat; the site in Kedah was an unregulated dumpsite located by the Sungai Muda riverbank. Findings revealed several cleared dumpsites were cleaned superficially as remnants of burnt and shredded plastic waste remained as a topsoil containing heavy metals and metalloids, while chemical contaminants were found in nearby soils and water sources.

[2] CHEM Trust (2017): No Brainer – The impact of chemicals on children’s brain development: a cause for concern and a need for action

[3] Chemical contaminants found include phosphorus-based flame retardant (TPPO) as well as metals and metalloids such as antimony, nickel and copper.

[4] According to the Malaysian government, some unscrupulous recyclers also disguise their imports or mis-declare it under a different customs code – HS 3915 is the code for plastic waste. Following the Selangor state and Environment Ministry’s crackdown, the imported plastic waste began shifting towards Malaysia’s northern states of Kedah and Penang with imports flooding the Penang port.

[5] Malaysia returns 150 containers of plastic trash to countries of origin

[6] Between 2016 and 2018, the ASEAN region saw plastic waste imports grow by a staggering 171%, from 836,529 tonnes to 2,265,962 tonnes. The equivalent to around 423,544 20-foot shipping containers.


Yvonne Nathan, Digital and Media Campaigner, Greenpeace Malaysia, [email protected], +60176 628 306

Perry Wheeler, Senior Communications Specialist, Greenpeace USA, [email protected], +13016758766

Greenpeace International Press Desk, +31 (0)20 718 2470 (available 24 hours), [email protected]

Perry Wheeler

By Perry Wheeler

Perry Wheeler is a senior communications specialist at Greenpeace USA.

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