An auxiliary police officer inspects plastic waste inside cargo containers before it is sent back to the country of origin in Port Klang, Selangor, Malaysia, on May 28. (Fazry Ismail/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

It’s grossly unfair for rich countries to send their plastic waste to poor countries that are already struggling to cope with their own waste problems, and the practice needs to stop, Malaysia’s Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad said Thursday.

His comments, made on a visit to Tokyo, came after Malaysia announced this week it was sending back more than 3,000 tons of nonrecyclable plastic waste to countries such as the United States, Britain, Canada, Australia and Japan that had apparently been smuggled into the country. 

Malaysia’s government says it has become a dumping ground for rich nations after China banned the import of plastic waste last year.

China’s decision has sparked a crisis in the global waste disposal industry because neither the richer nations nor poorer ones have the capacity to process all the waste they produce. 

“This is going to be a problem for the whole world,” Mahathir said. “We are producing too much waste, and you have a problem trying to get rid of the waste.” 

Landfills don’t serve any purpose any more, while waste can’t just be burned because of air pollution, he said. “So it is grossly unfair for rich countries to send waste to poor countries simply because the poor countries have no choice, maybe it contributes a little to their economy,” he said. 


“We don’t need your waste because our own waste is enough to give us problems,” said Malaysia's Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad. (Behrouz Mehri/AFP/Getty Images)

On Tuesday, Malaysia’s Environment Minister Yeo Bee Yin said 60 containers of contaminated waste would be sent back to their countries of origin.

She showed reporters containers full of cables from Britain, contaminated milk cartons from Australia and compact discs from Bangladesh, as well as bales of electronic and household waste from the United States, Canada, Japan, Saudi Arabia and China, the Associated Press reported

“We cannot accept that kind of idea, that waste from rich countries should be sent to poor countries,” Mahathir said at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan. “We don’t need your waste because our own waste is enough to give us problems.” 

Last week, the Philippines also said it would ship back dozens of containers of garbage, which officials said had been illegally shipped there from Canada.

Mahathir said Malaysia had taken steps to reduce the use of plastic bags and plastic straws, but it was incumbent on the whole world to reduce plastic consumption, and for rich countries to stop sending their waste to poorer nations for recycling. 

“Please remember that when you pollute one part of the world you pollute the rest of the world also, because these things tend to float all over the world,” he said. 

In an April report, the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives said China’s import ban had sent shock waves through the global plastic trade.

Western Europe and the United States had diverted exports to Southeast Asia, primarily Malaysia, as well as Thailand, Vietnam and Taiwan, with “staggering” consequences in those countries, including contaminated water supplies, crop death, respiratory illness from exposure to burning plastic and a rise in organized crime, it said.

The World Wildlife Fund says 8 million tons of plastic are being dumped into the oceans every year, while 90 percent of seabirds have plastic fragments in their guts. 

While much of this ocean waste is thought to be coming from Asian countries, including China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Sri Lanka, experts say Western nations share responsibility for the crisis because they are exporting plastic waste to poorer nations. Western companies also export consumer goods packaged in plastic to the developing world. 

In the past few days alone, a young sperm whale washed up on a beach in Italy with several kilograms of plastic in its stomach, while a dead dolphin was found in Florida with a stomach full of plastic, including a two-foot plastic shower hose.