Rome, Italy – Concerns are growing over the illegal export of plastic waste to Malaysia from Italy after an undercover Greenpeace investigation found that Italian companies are sidestepping laws to create a dumping ground abroad.
In its investigation, Greenpeace found that in the first nine months of 2019, Italian companies sent 1,300 tonnes of illicit plastic waste to Malaysia.
“Such companies showed no respect for human health, nor for the surrounding environment,” Pierdavide Pasotti, head of the investigative unit of Greenpeace Italy, told Al Jazeera.
Italy was the sixth-largest exporter of plastic waste to Malaysia in 2019, and plastics have piled up outside Malaysian factories but also in the backyards of some houses, contaminating the surrounding environment.
The European Union requires that its member states export recyclable material to non-EU countries only if they ensure that they fulfil all the environmental and technical standards required of companies in the EU.
Greenpeace obtained shipment documents from multiple sources.
They crosschecked the number of shipments from Italy with the list of the 64 Malaysian companies in the national registry of plastic waste importers.
Italian firms sent 43 out of 65 shipments to businesses lacking either legal authorisation or the necessary technical equipment to process plastic scrap, Greenpeace said.
During an undercover visit to some unapproved facilities near the coastal town of Port Klang, Greenpeace found bundles of plastic waste that once contained British sugar, German cheese and Italian onions.
After analysing samples of plastic found in the area, Greenpeace discovered high levels of dangerous chemicals, including heavy metals and Benzo(a)pyrene.
This unregulated dumping puts the local population’s health at risk.
In the city of Sungai Petani, Greenpeace documented a 30-percent rise in people affected by respiratory disease.
“The air becomes unbreathable at dawn because of the toxic smoke rising from garbage burning,” Pasotti said.
The environmental organisation has delivered its findings to Italian prosecutors.
“If these accusations were confirmed, they could lead to serious charges such as illicit traffic [in] waste and international criminal association,” said Paola Fico, an Italian environmental lawyer.
Giuseppe Ungherese, who leads Greenpeace Italy’s anti-pollution campaigns, said: “This situation is frankly unacceptable. We asked the Italian authorities to intervene immediately, halting this illegal traffic and reducing the production of single-use plastics.”
Italian Minister of the Environment Sergio Costa called for action after the investigation was made public, saying: “We need to carry on with the battle to minimise the production of single-use plastics, and move forward towards a circular economy based on recycling, reusing and regenerating.”
With more than 105 million metric tonnes of plastics received since 1992, China was the major importer of recyclables worldwide. But, two years ago, Beijing changed its policy, issuing a ban on various types of waste.
The Bureau of International Recycling estimates an annual turnover of approximately $500bn for the global recycling sector and a projected annual growth rate over the next five years of 6.5 to 7 percent for the plastics recycling market.
Recycling facilities have sprouted up across Malaysia, many without an operating license.
To curb illegal recycling and avoid turning the country into a dumping ground, in July 2018, the Malaysian government shuttered 150 plants, stopped issuing plastic import permits and recalled operating licenses.
But Greenpeace found out that Italian continued regardless – between August and December 2018, 3,500 tonnes of plastic waste was dumped, much of it mislabeled.
“The content inside the container is not what they declare,” Ng Sze Han, a member of the executive committee of the Malaysian state of Selangor, told Greenpeace.
“Most of the time, it’s a mixture of very dirty plastic waste, and the recyclable content is very low – probably 20 to 30 percent.”
Diplomatic rows over rich countries dumping their rubbish on developing nations have grown in recent years.
In 2016, a Philippine court ordered a company to ship waste back to Canada after customs officials found everything, from household waste to nappies, in a cargo labelled as “recyclable plastics”.
In an effort to regulate the trade of hard-to-recycle plastic, 180 countries signed a UN-backed deal in May 2019. From January 2021, exporting nations will need permission from the governments receiving their recyclables.
Italian politicians are well aware of the violations plaguing international shipments: According to the parliamentary committee on crimes connected with waste management, 25 percent of the s to non-EU countries present irregularities.
“The problem roots at different levels,” Claudia Salvestrini, managing director of Polieco, told Al Jazeera.
Polieco is a private consortium that oversees the production, import, distribution and recycling of any goods based on polyethene, especially plastic waste produced by industrial and agricultural activities.
“There is a lack of controls inside the processing facilities that receive the waste, and then customs cannot perform any inspections in the harbour, because the current law gives them only three days for checking the containers,” said Salvestrini.
Greenpeace suggested that Italy should consider imposing a temporary ban on any exports of plastic waste to Malaysia.
For Salvestrini, the best option would be a bilateral agreement between the two countries: “Malaysia should import only from those Italian companies that not only separate the different kinds of plastics but also wash and grind it. Otherwise, the country would end up like China.”