Reports from a Malaysian environmental group, Sahabat Alam Malaysia, led officials at the country’s Department of Environment to believe an incoming shipment of plastic waste from the United States contained hazardous waste (New Strait Times). However, inspection of the shipment revealed that it contained only clean, recyclable polyethylene. Seeing no violation of a United Nations Basel Convention amendment on plastic waste, which entered into force on January 1, Malaysia accepted the waste import (Reuters, Jakarta Post).

Following China’s 2018 ban on plastic waste imports, Malaysia has become the leading destination for other countries’ waste. The United States currently produces more plastic per capita than any other country in the world and has been a major exporter of plastic waste, despite protests of the countries receiving these shipments (Reuters, New York Times). In 2020, to combat the continued shipment of hazardous plastic waste and its severe impacts on the local environment and public health, Malaysia began returning shipments to their countries of origin, sending 150 shipping containers back to high-income countries including the United States (Malaysian Reserve, CNN).

Observers are hopeful that the Basel amendment may help decrease international trade of hazardous wastes. The Convention mandates that plastic waste shipments contain only clean, easy-to-sort, recyclable materials, unless the importing country grants a prior exemption (Jakarta Post). The United States is currently the only major country that has not ratified the Convention and is not subject to its rules (Reuters). However, as exemplified by the tensions surrounding this recent shipment to Malaysia, other countries may become less willing to accept the now illegal American waste.