We cannot burn our way out of the plastic crisis

Sep 6, 2021

On July 29, the C4 Center and Sahabat Alam Malaysia conducted an online forum titled “Malaysia is not a ‘Garbage Dump’: Enhancing Monitoring & Enforcement Efforts in Kedah and Penang” to  examine the challenges faced by authorities in monitoring and enforcement along the value chains for imported plastic waste, besides encouraging dialogues between the authorities and the public. Over 100 participants joined, many actively engaging with the panel of speakers by asking questions and expressing concerns.

Developed countries such as the United States, the United Kingdom, and Japan, continue to eschew responsibility for their own wastes, choosing instead to ship them away. Since China’s ban on plastic waste imports in 2018, there has been a flood of foreign plastic wastes in the Global South, particularly Southeast Asia.

Plastic waste entered developing countries under the pretext of “recycling”. But these countries soon became a dumping ground as the imports included mixed plastic waste, non-recyclable plastic waste, or plastic waste that was significantly contaminated with other wastes; or it contained toxic additives that make safe recycling impossible.

In 2018 Malaysia became the largest recipient of the world’s plastic waste, parings, and scrap of plastics categorised as HS3915 amounting to 872,762 tons, as reported in the UN Comtrade site.

Many errant recycling firms opened up in Malaysia beginning of 2018. These plants were operating without permits or prior approval from relevant authorities, using low-end technology and environmentally harmful methods of disposal by burning residual waste that cannot be recycled or illegally dumping them.

Open burning is much too common in Malaysia. Illegal recycling facilities are shut down in one location only to materialize in another, thus spreading the incidences of open burning in the country.

The residual waste from the plastics recycling industry and illegal dumping is a major problem.   The Malaysian government is convinced that the conversion of waste to processed engineered fuel as an alternative fuel and source for producing cement is viable and the way forward to clear the residual waste from plastic recycling plants and clean up illegal plastic waste dumps in the country.

The Malaysian government is also looking into the possibility of incineration, causing a new set of problems as there will be toxic emissions into the air and also through the ashes.



Below are some reported cases of the open burning of plastic wastes by illegal recycling facilities across Peninsular Malaysia.

In 2018, the Kuala Langat district in Selangor became a hotspot for open burning, particularly within the city of Jenjarom. This is due to their proximity to Port Klang, where plastic waste imports are received.   As many as 33 illegal recycling facilities were discovered by the community, near urban areas and oil palm estates.  People were getting sick, complained about respiratory problems, skin rashes, irritant eyes, and unbearable smell.

The community here formed an organization called the Kuala Langat Environmental Protection Action Group, writing letters to the authorities to take action, held meetings with the government, and also highlighted the issue in local and international media. These actions gained a lot of attention and also prompted the Malaysian government to take action.

The same year, dozens of illegal recycling facilities emerged on the island of Pulau Indah and several in Pelabuhan Kelang in the district of Klang.  The community representatives are vigilant and report these open burnings. The pollution and other environmental problems in this district also prompted the communities to form an organization.

In the SAM – C4 Center forum, activist Lydia Ong reiterated the rampant open burning of plastic wastes in Sungai Petani in the state of Kedah, besides the incidences of illegal dumpsites that catch fire too.  During the forum, she detailed how the air pollution is so high that cars in the area are covered with a “thick layer of soot” each day.

Likewise, there have been complaints regarding the smell of burning plastics by communities in Tanjung Bungah and Sungai Ara in Penang but the authorities are not able to identify the hot spots as it is often in remote areas.


Figure 1: Shredded waste dumped and set on fire in Sungai Petani, Kedah, 31 January 2020 (Wong, 2021)



When open burned, plastic wastes are converted to thick smoke, ash, and toxic fumes which pollute the environment, contribute to climate change through the release of fossil carbon and harm all living things, particularly the world’s poorest communities and waste pickers.

Exhibited effects [of burning plastics] include coughing, fatigue, breathing problems, nose bleeds, eye irritation, and skin issues such as itchiness and rashes.

Citizens impacted by the open burning of plastic wastes complain about the “acrid burning” smell and the visible air pollution. Exhibited effects include fatigue, coughing, breathing problems, nose bleeds, eye irritation, and skin issues such as itchiness and rashes.

For example, in the case of Sungai Petani, hundreds of residents have been suffering from the deteriorating air quality of burning plastics since late 2018. The Sungai Petani Environmental Action Group (PTAS) found an increase in hospital admissions from 15% to 30% between May and August of 2019. Residents, particularly children and the elderly, have been severely affected by respiratory illnesses such as bronchitis and asthma, as well as skin issues such as eczema. High cases of COVID-19 in the area mean that many people already affected by the virus and its symptoms must suffer further by the aggravating effects of burning plastics.

When plastics are open burned, combustion is often incomplete, so these [toxic] chemicals escape destruction and are released into the surrounding air, soil, and water.

Chemicals released from burning plastics can lead to other serious long-term effects that have yet to be manifested. Plastics contain potentially toxic additives and contaminants which are persistent organic pollutants and endocrine disrupting chemicals, such as dioxins and furans. When plastics are open burned, combustion is often incomplete, so these chemicals escape destruction and are released into the surrounding air, soil, and water. From there, these chemicals can leach into and accumulate within the tissues of plants and animals, contaminating the food chain, or inhaled and ingested directly by humans. They can damage human immune and reproductive systems, weaken intellectual functions, disrupt vital hormone functioning and development, and exacerbate or cause health conditions such as cancer and diabetes.


Figure 2: Hazard exposure conceptual model for the open burning of plastic wastes (Velis & Cook, 2021)


What can we do?

Reporting incidences of open burning can improve the quality of living for you and your fellow residents.

Here are some simple steps to follow:

  1. Note down the time, date, and location of the incidence;
  2. If you notice a pattern of incidences developing over a few weeks, compile this information;
  3. Submit your complaint via the official channels;
  4. Follow up on your complaint.


Figure 3: Official channels to report open burning (Malay Mail, 2021)


Should these complaints go unchecked, don’t give up! Join an existing environmental group, reach out to your neighbours to form your own, or voice out this issue online in protest.

It is simply impossible to burn our way out of the plastic waste crisis. Let’s speak out and do what we can to fight for the protection of the environment and our health.



Plastic has adverse effects at every phase of its lifecycle from the extraction of fossil fuels to its disposal.  Plastic not only accelerates the climate crisis, but its production and disposal threaten the rights and health of communities all around the world. Hence we need a solution that takes a holistic look at the entire system that surrounds plastic.

During the online forum, C4 Center and SAM recommended a ban on the import of waste into Malaysia, which would serve to address the issues of imported waste being unable to be returned to origin countries, while making a big step towards resolving illegal waste processing in Malaysia by cutting off supplies.

Until a ban is implemented we need to ensure transparency for plastic waste imports and ensure that imported wastes are managed in a manner that minimises harm to public health and the environment.  

International networks  have been advocating for a new treaty, a legally binding global agreement to govern plastic, which would address the impacts throughout the lifecycle of plastics.  Reaching a global agreement on plastic is a key element in meaningfully confronting the growing plastic crisis.  We need to stop the injustice and waste colonialism.