Pua Lay Peng first smelled trouble early last year. An acrid odor began waking her up in the middle of the night, and the sky often appeared unusually hazy.
Her neighbors in the quiet, agricultural town of Jenjarom began complaining of headaches, respiratory problems, skin allergies and other ailments. Children were falling sick more often than usual, and one local teacher said she was finding it hard to concentrate at school because of how disturbed her sleep had become.
Pua began feeling lethargic all the time, too, and it was starting to worry her. She also noticed fewer butterflies and insects on her walks around town.
The 46-year-old initially thought the problem was linked to haze wafting in from Indonesia, where agricultural fires are known to rage and cause thick smog in neighboring countries. But that kind of haze shouldn’t have been making locals sick, she said.
“You could tell that it was toxic,” Pua recalled of the smell, speaking from a restaurant in Jenjarom last month.
A chemist by trade, Pua said the foul odor was familiar to her. It smelled like burning plastic.
But who in Jenjarom, a close-knit town of 30,000 known for its farms and palm oil plantations, could be setting fire to so much plastic all of a sudden? Pua was determined to find out.
Together with a small band of other concerned neighbors, Pua embarked on a months-long crusade to uncover the truth behind the toxic-smelling air. Along the way, they endured ridicule from local authorities and even death threats from mysterious sources. Their investigation helped expose an ugly side effect of a global recycling industry that activists and politicians in Malaysia have described as broken, inequitable and unjust, and that puts the health of ecosystems and local people at risk.
The group of residents Pua worked with—including a lawyer, a former village leader and a stay-at-home mom—spent their weekends and lunch hours scouring Jenjarom for evidence of burn piles. They soon discovered smoldering mounds of plastic hidden inside plantations and around quiet corners of residential neighborhoods, each releasing dangerous chemicals and heavy metals into the air.
They found suspicious facilities—brand-new, unmarked places apparently recycling plastic scraps—cropping up around town. The neighbors rented a drone to fly over the facilities and snap pictures. Pua collected water samples near the facilities to test them for toxic metals—many returned positive.
Concerned by their findings, the residents began raising the alarm with local and state authorities starting last February, but were initially brushed off. None among them had any experience with activism, but as the burning odor intensified and their cries for help went ignored, the group drummed up support from neighbors and spread their story, reaching out to nonprofit groups and journalists, both local and far-flung.
These grassroots activists, it turned out, had discovered a growing network of unlicensed recyclers who were illegally recycling imported plastic scraps from countries like the US, the UK and Australia. The illicit recyclers are apparently responsible for dumping and burning trash that is too contaminated or damaged to recycle.
Burning plastic releases toxic chemicals like hydrochloric acid and dioxins, as well as heavy metals and particulates. It can cause damage to the nervous system and exacerbate heart and respiratory diseases, among other health risks. Not only that, but plastic rubbish doesn’t break down naturally, meaning that it can linger for decades after it’s dumped, infiltrating the food chain and clogging waterways before being swept out to sea.
Southeast Asian nations have been flooded with plastic waste from the developed world in the past year. It’s cheaper for wealthy nations to ship low-grade recyclable trash overseas instead of dealing with it at home. Malaysia is now a top destination for this trash, despite having only a fledgling recycling industry and a shortage of watchdogs.
Thanks in large part to the Jenjarom activists’ persistence, this pervasive problem soon began making headlines the world over.
Malaysia’s environment minister, Yeo Bee Yin, whose office has since taken action to crack down on illicit recyclers, credited community members for drawing the government’s attention to the problem. Speaking from her office in Putrajaya in January, Yeo did not specifically mention Pua or her group but said residents in the Jenjarom area had “played an important role” in spurring the government to act.
“It was members of the public who first said, ‘There’s a problem. There’s this smell,'” the minister said.
Yeo and her ministry are now pushing for reform of the global recycling industry, which she says benefits wealthy countries like the US but harms developing countries. It’s been a “wake-up call for the world,” she said of the changes that have rocked the industry in recent years.
Greenpeace Malaysia, which has been supporting the efforts of Pua and her fellow grassroots activists, said it’d be impossible to overstate the influence the residents of Jenjarom have had on this global conversation.
“If the local community hadn’t been united and organized, it would have been hard for outsiders to support them and for change to happen,” said campaigner Heng Kiah Chun.
The threats on her life and safety, Pua said, began last year.
“I received messages like, ‘Don’t act so aggressively or we will come after you,'” she recalled. “I was scared.”
Pua showed HuffPost screenshots of a Facebook conversation she’d had with someone who’d contacted her using a sham account. The person, who Pua believes was affiliated with the illegal recyclers in Jenjarom, suggested that there was a bounty on the local activists’ heads. More than $25,000—a considerable sum in this area—had been offered as “revenge,” the threat read.
The person then quoted a Chinese saying, “Breaking someone’s rice bowl is like killing their parents,” a suggestion that Pua and her neighbors had robbed the unauthorized recyclers of their livelihood.
C.K. Lee, a commercial lawyer who volunteered to join Pua’s crusade, remembered how a group of men physically stopped his car and then chased him in an area where illicit recycling was known to occur.
“We are vocal, so nobody likes us,” Lee, 56, quipped.
Lee said he lost clients because of his activism. Tan Ching Hin, a former village head, said he fell out with many friends. Pua and Lee said their regular jobs had been significantly disrupted because of the commitment required to carry out their investigations and to follow up on their findings.
“Some days, I had to sacrifice my work because I was drafting complaint letters [to authorities]. Many weekends have been spent meeting with journalists,” Pua said, an edge of fatigue in her voice. “It’s been a lot of time, a lot of effort.”
But for all that, Pua said, inaction had never been an option.
“If we kept quiet, we’d turn into a cancer village,” she said. “These illegal factories would just keep doubling, doubling. And what will happen next? It’ll be a disaster for my country? So I balance that in my mind.”
Unlicensed plastic recyclers numbering in the hundreds began setting up shop in Malaysia and Southeast Asian neighbors like Thailand and Vietnam at the end of 2017. The deluge followed China’s announcement that it was closing its borders to 24 categories of recyclable waste, including several kinds of scrap plastic and mixed paper.
For decades, China had been the world’s largest importer of recyclables. The country’s ban, which came into force on Jan. 1, 2018, had a profound global impact. Recyclables began piling up at ports and recycling facilities in European countries, Japan, Hong Kong and elsewhere. In the US—which has historically exported about one-third of its recyclables annually, mostly to China—mountains of waste were being stockpiled or dumped in landfills.
But within a few months of the enforcement of China’s ban, Southeast Asia began groaning under the weight of the world’s recyclable waste as exporters changed tactics. Virtually overnight, Malaysia became the world’s largest importer of plastic scrap, with places like the US and Europe sending hundreds of millions of tons to the country. From January to November 2018, Malaysia imported about 435 million pounds of plastic scrap from the US alone, according to data provided by trade publication Resource Recycling. That amount was almost double the plastic scrap that US exporters sent to Malaysia over the same period in 2017.
According to Greenpeace activists and industry insiders, much of this waste is being imported by unauthorized recyclers from China who, lured by cheaper labor and less stringent environmental regulations, relocated their operations to Malaysia following the Chinese ban.
These illicit recyclers first appeared in the Jenjarom area—located near the port city of Klang, where imported recyclables enter the country—before steadily spreading northward across Peninsular Malaysia.
Officials told HuffPost in February that unlicensed recyclers had begun to pop up in Kedah, a northern state bordering Thailand.
The recyclers’ pattern of behavior has been similar wherever they’ve gone. They set up ad-hoc factories in quiet areas, contaminate groundwater as they process plastic waste and illegally dump or burn whatever they can’t recycle—usually in the dead of night.
Tan, the former Jenjarom village head, said he remembers when the smell of burning plastic began invading his neighborhood.
“The smell was terrible,” he recalled. “In the 60 years I’ve lived here, I’ve never smelled such a smell. At 3 or 4 a.m., the smell would rise and it was hard to bear.”
The 63-year-old said activists found some unauthorized facilities “mere meters away from residential areas.”
“There [was no official signage] at these places. The workers there had no masks, took no safety precautions,” Tan added.
The community activists beseeched the local council and state government to do something about these plants. Pua said they were initially “pushed around like a ping-pong ball” as each agency attempted to pass the buck.
“Local council kept telling us it takes time,” she said. “We kept sending letters and at one point, they said to us, ‘Don’t you have anything better to do?'”
Finally, in July, after about five months of the residents’ activism, local authorities shuttered 34 illegal recycling facilities in Kuala Langat, the district where Jenjarom is located. They seized about 17,000 metric tons of waste, most of it too contaminated to be recycled, the Los Angeles Times reported.
That same month, Malaysia announced that it was temporarily banning the import of plastic scrap. (Thailand and Vietnam made similar announcements around that time.) Yeo’s office vowed to root out illicit recyclers from the country. In the intervening months, her ministry has shut down more than 130 illegal plastic waste recycling facilities, several of which have been charged in court and slapped with significant fines.
Yeo said the ban will eventually be lifted. New, permanent regulations are expected to roll out in the coming months. These are meant to include limitations to the amount of contaminated plastic scrap that will be allowed into the country, Yeo said, as well as more stringent rules regarding recycling permits.
The minister has also been advocating for an international treaty that would make the global movement of plastic scrap more transparent and equitable.
“The citizens of the developed world need to demand that their governments be transparent about the way they track their waste. Where exactly is your trash going? Where is your plastic going?” she said. “[What] irritates me is the injustice. The injustice seeing people in the developing world suffering from the rubbish [originating] in developed countries.”
Greenpeace’s Heng said he was heartened by the minister’s enthusiasm.
“We see this as a positive step forward,” he said. “The government is highlighting how broken the international recycling system is. [Since 1950], only 9 percent of all plastic waste has been recycled, 12 percent incinerated and the rest dumped into natural environments.”
“This is not just a Malaysian problem or a US problem or a Chinese problem,” Heng continued. “This is a global problem.”
Residents in Jenjarom say they aren’t convinced by the minister’s lofty promises. Though dozens of illicit plants in their town have been shuttered since last year, they say their problems haven’t ceased. New facilities are still popping up and there continues to be evidence of illegal activity.
On a Saturday morning in February, the Jenjarom activists alerted HuffPost to an illegal dump site that someone had set alight in a palm oil plantation in town. Thick, white, toxic smoke billowed out of the burning piles of plastic scrap. Pua, briefly pulling off her respirator mask to speak, said she wished “the ministers could come here to see this for themselves.”
Plastic scrap is a lucrative business for unlicensed recyclers, so quashing them is no easy feat, explained Phee Boon Poh, a government official in the Malaysian state of Penang.
“It’s a long march,” said Phee, who chairs the state environment committee. “Every day, it’s a process.”
In Penang, authorities have shut down at least 200 unlicensed recyclers in recent months. But, Phee noted, “Whenever there’s a crackdown, they just go somewhere else.”
Many unauthorized recyclers have apparently managed to sidestep the temporary ban on imported scrap by smuggling. Phee said they classify the scrap as a different type of plastic to sneak the materials into the country. But not all of it gets through. More than 175 containers of plastic scrap, which Phee said were wrongly classified, have been stuck in Penang’s port since at least November.
“The fight is not finished,” Lee, the lawyer and activist, said of Jenjarom’s recycling crisis. “The problem is not solved, it’s just always relocating.”
Lee, who was wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the words, “Everyone has a responsibility to protect the environment” in Chinese, said he and his neighbors will continue to wage their battle against the illicit recyclers in their town.
“The environment is everyone’s duty,” he said. “We all need fresh, clean air to breathe.”
This story is part of a series on plastic waste, funded by SC Johnson. All content is editorially independent, with no influence or input from the company.