The return of the detritus!

Our recycling is working it’s way back to us. And it’s not been given the new leash of life we were promised

There is a certain self worth one feels when putting out the carefully washed and sorted recycling for collection. Doing this, we are promised, enables all this ‘stuff’ to reenter the circular economy (recover and regenerate materials to reuse). But the reality is that only about 9% of our recycling gets recycled. So where does the rest end up?

“What the citizens of the UK [and other countries] think they have sent for recycling are actually being dumped in our country … Malaysians have a right to clean air, clean water and a clean environment to live in, just like citizens of developed nations.”

“Malaysia will not be the dumping ground of the world,” … “We will fight back. Even though we are a small country, we can’t be bullied by developed countries.’’

Malaysia’s environment minister  Yeo Bee Yin

Household plastic waste from the UK found at a dump site in Ipoh, Malaysia. Photo: Unearthed.

Household plastic waste from the UK found at a dump site in Ipoh, Malaysia. Photo: Unearthed.


This week, Malaysia’s environment minister  Yeo Bee Yin assertively told us that they wouldn’t put up with our illegal waste exports anymore. They will send it back. And yes, a lot of it is our recycling we spend time sorting. Developed countries, like the UK embarrassingly don’t have the infrastructure to support the volume of recycling we produce, ‘plastic needs to be sorted into its separate polymers and formats in order to facilitate final reprocessing back into reusable pellets’ (Jessica Baker, Director at Chase Plastics Ltd.) If we can’t do it, how do we expect the developing countries to be able to! But it is cheaper for us to put it on a boat and export it. Until January 2018 China took on our recycling but because we imported so much that was badly sorted and contaminated they closed their doors. Our own recycling infrastructure cannot cope with the vast quantities we create. And because we have high regulations it’s easier to export it to countries with lower regulations than us. So as long as our recycling isn’t being recycled with makeshift, dangerous and toxic methods on OUR own precious, beautiful land- who cares! Out of sight, out of mind!



“You [developed countries] have so-called high recycling rates; as citizens do you know where your plastic waste and pollution ends up? It’s in other people’s countries, affecting other people’s children. Your recycling rate is nothing to be proud of,”

Dr Theng [an independent waste consultant]

Yeah I admit it must be a terrible eyesore, but it’s not like plastic rots and can affect health?

‘‘A former civil servant, who declined to be quoted by name, said the smells were sometimes so strong they would pervade the house even when windows and doors were closed. He added that he had noticed increased pollution in the river over the past couple of years,

“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.”

CK Lee, a local solicitor who works with the Kuala Langat Environmental Association, said:

“Local residents were having breathing difficulties, having difficulty to sleep, feeling nausea, [and] feeling unwell.”

Quotes takes from: UK household plastics found in illegal dumps in Malaysia Unearthed October 2018

‘…as long as we keep sending poorly sorted plastic overseas for reprocessing a significant proportion of this mix will end up in open landfill, the rivers and then oceans overseas.”

The solution, she suggests, is to make products more recyclable, collect these and reprocess them in the UK, adding: “Exported plastics should be of a sorted, single polymer stream or format so that overseas reprocessors do not have to re-sort it and throw out what they can’t use. Only this is going to address our contribution to the problem of ocean plastic.”

Jessica Baker, Director at Chase Plastics Ltd,



Further reading:

UK household plastics found in illegal dumps in Malaysia Unearthed October 2018

Malaysia to send up to 100 tonnes of plastic waste back to Australia Guardian May 2019

Why the world’s recycling system stopped working Financial Times October 2018

Government ‘clutching at straws’ over waste plastic exports Axion Circular economy specialists June 2018

Individual action is important!

Recycle less, not more. Moving towards zero waste.

Now, what I have written here is simplified and I must confess I always feel overwhelmed when I read into it and try to distill the information. As always, I try to suggest something that consumers can do, because I believe fervently that individual action is important. Now that self worth serotonin hit we get from recycling is somewhat dampened, what can we do? Prevention is key here. And that will mean something different to everyone. I suggest coming up with realistic goals. When I gave up single use plastic I started with food because there was a market shop near my house in London and it was easy to go in after work. I highly recommend watching Bea Johnson author of ‘Zero Waste Home: The Ultimate guide to simplifying your life by reducing your waste’. I love her message; recycle less, not more. REFUSE, reduce, reuse, recycle, rot. In that order! See more at zerowastehome.com

Feeling guilty? Feeling judgemental?

Once you start to live by these rules it’s very easy to start judging people who don’t. And even if you don’t judge them, it’s often difficult to talk about what you are doing without it sounding that way! Someone who I find endlessly inspiring is Andrea Marie Saunders, a mindfulness meditation teacher and artist who believes you should meet people where they are on their own journey. There is no point in guilt (something I struggle a lot with) for being part of a system that we did not design.

She appreciates that living zero waste is easier for her because of her privileges as white, abled bodied (can walk, ride a bike) woman living in an affluent town in Colorado who has access to bulk stores and farmer’s markets. Andrea appreciates that zero waste is currently impossible due to our infrastructure. She encourages people to do what they can to move towards it.