Danish plastic waste from households ends up in Malaysia

In a small village in Malaysia, plastic waste from EU countries like Germany, France, Portugal, and now also Denmark has been found. The plastic waste is likely to come from Danish households collected for recycling.

The plastic waste, which was originally sent for recycling from Denmark to Germany, has ended up thousands of miles from Denmark in Southeast Asia, where it is found to be distributed by illegal middlemen and ends up in the hands of small family businesses. Here, the dirty and unsanitary plastic waste is hand sorted and burned off at night and then sold as fuel to other industries, etc. All with great implications for local communities, health, pollution, and the aquatic environment.

Background for the investigation

For ten months, Plastic Change has worked with the investigation section at the Danish broadcasting station TV2 to unravel what is really happening with the Danish plastic waste from households when it is exported for recycling abroad. The revelations were realized through Plastic Change and the global movement Break Free From Plastic, which consists of 1600 organizations worldwide. Here, partners in the global South are battling massive amounts of plastic waste being exported from the West, mainly from the United States and Europe. The amounts of waste end up in Southeast Asia, as a result of China closing the door as a primary buyer for the West’s plastic waste in January 2018.

China was previously a consumer of more than half of the world’s plastic waste sent for recycling. China’s decision not to be dumping ground for worldwide plastic waste has resulted in a global plastic waste crisis in which plastic waste, collected for recycling in the US and Europe, is alternately shipped between different countries in Southeast Asia and handled by illegal middlemen. Several of these recipient countries, such as the Philippines, have since made national bans on the import of plastic waste. Several recipient countries have even begun to return containers to sending countries, recognizing that they cannot handle the hazardous waste that ends up being huge environmental and health impacts in the local communities where the plastic waste ends.


How does this problem arise?

But how and why are our Western plastic waste being sent for recycling in Asia? The explanation is that in Denmark we only sort, wash and clean, reprocess and recycle a very small part of our household plastic waste. Partly because we have chosen to invest in expensive waste incineration plants and partly because we have not expanded a recycling industry in Denmark.

Instead, we send a larger part to sorting plants in Sweden and Germany, where they have state-of-the-art facilities. The fact that we export our plastic waste to neighboring countries within the EU is not in itself a problem. On the contrary, it may be just the right thing for a small country like Denmark. But the problem arises from the fact that there is no supervision of the plastic waste as soon as it crosses the Danish borders. Also, the products and packaging that we export for recycling are in poor quality and poorly designed, and therefore difficult to recycle.

It was recently revealed (end of August 2019) that the largest municipal-owned waste company in Denmark, Vestforbrænding, did not live up to the agreed recycling rate of 75%. They export a large proportion of household plastic from 19 municipalities in Zealand, Denmark to the German sorting plant, Alba, for so-called ‘recycling’. It turned out that instead of the agreed 75%, the recycling rate was only about 30%.

The question about what happens to the rest of the Danish plastic waste that is not recycled is difficult to answer clearly. As mentioned, part of the waste is incinerated in Germany, where the investigations show another part is packed in containers and exported for “recycling” in countries such as Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, etc.. Here recycling instead equals to toxic smoke from western plastics burning side by side with playful children and local homes.


Recycling is not the right solution

In theory, recycling our waste is convenient in the sense that we do not need to change our behavior and buying patterns. We can continue our business-as-usual because as long as we sort our waste that we are told, all is well. Then the municipality takes care of the rest.

But even though there has been talking about recycling over the past 30 years, we have only recycled approx. 9% of all plastic ever produced at a global level. Unfortunately, even though we are told that the plastic we know from the supermarket and elsewhere can and will be recycled into something meaningful, this is far from reality. As a result, your plastic tray where your grapes have been in does not become a new one, nor does your cottage cheese cup or

Reuse vs. Recycling
> Reuse means, that you use the same product over and over.
> Recycling means, that the product is collected, sorted, washed, reprocessed and produced into a new product.

the packaging around your tomatoes, potatoes, toothpaste, ready meals, etc. The vast majority of the plastic from supermarkets and takeaway food is, unfortunately, single-use plastics. The current recycling method of single-use plastic is far from sustainable and most likely never will. In addition, it is within supermarkets and the to-go-culture that we use most plastic – and probably will use even more in the future. Therefore, we need to adapt differently and rethink the way we act so that we completely avoid the huge amount of disposable plastic in the home and the public space.


We need a waste revolution

So if we are to reduce supermarket plastic and to-go disposable plastic in the future, we need to avoid using it. This means that we have to think about products and packaging differently and incorporate them into the systems that are supposed to circulate the packaging. We need to think much more in service design; that is how you as a consumer can get the product you want – without the by-product which in this case is the packaging that eventually turns into waste.

The Tivoli Cup in Copenhagen is a good example of such a solution. The cup is designed in such a way that you pay a small deposit, and return it in a vending machine – thus it is used again and again. In other words, the cup has gained value as the consumer is motivated to deliver it because they then get the deposit back. Therefore, there is a system for the cup that allows it to easily be collected, washed and recycled. The same model was developed in the German city of Freiburg, where the to-go coffee cup has gained value as it is also designed to be recycled. This model encourages return after use, and the system is integrated into the city across more than 100 stores and coffee chains that are part of the scheme. The system works because players in the coffee market have figured out to work together on a non-branded, standard, washable cup.

This positive and circular development is also sprouting in the Swiss city of Bern, where 1,000 restaurants use the same dish type to supply the city with to-go food without any plastic waste.

Where does all of this leave us?

Recycling has failed in Denmark, Europe and globally. The huge overconsumption in the western world creates huge amounts of plastic waste that we cannot handle ourselves. That is why we are sending it out into the world to the global South while pointing fingers at the same countries to be the ones that emit the most plastic in the oceans. But we are done pointing fingers at the Asian countries, as the big plastic sinners.

We have a huge responsibility as the rich countries we are and should take responsibility for our consumption – especially not by passing the burden on to someone who has even worse conditions to handle the waste. We should solve the problem ourselves, by working for a ban on plastic waste exports away from Europe, by reducing the volumes, by reusing our resources, and by better product design.

Read more about our political work on reducing plastic both nationally and internationally