Why do Southeast Asian countries accept trash that they know they cannot process? Partly to gain recyclable raw materials used in production, but also to provide informal jobs for low-wage workers. These labourers, who pick, clean, and sort plastic trash often mixed with medical waste and sharp objects, depend on this limited income for a living. Bluntly put, this access to cheap labour explains why developed countries still deposit their trash in Southeast Asia despite the region’s underdeveloped recycling infrastructure.
But for many Southeast Asian countries today, even the promise of new recycling jobs has soured. Plastics come in various types and grades, and each requires its own treatment for recycling. Worse, if contaminated trash and rubbish gets mixed with recyclables, the whole batch becomes unrecyclable. For this reason, only a fraction of recyclable plastic actually gets recycled—and the intentional mislabelling of imported plastic waste to avoid customs regulations makes things even worse. For example, 70–80 percent of Cambodia's waste goes to landfill, even though 65 percent of this landfill waste is recyclable.
Without proper systems for sorting and cleaning trash, imported plastic waste floods rivers and coastal banks, polluting the environment and threatening the health of locals. Sihanoukville, a small town in Cambodia, knows this better than most. Faced with ever-growing trash heaps, local residents are left frustrated and helpless about why this is happening in their backyard.
When things are handled well and unrecyclable plastic waste is collected, most of it gets incinerated for power generation or dumped in landfills. At municipal facilities, toxic ash and gases from incineration are filtered out, but cleanly disposing of the resulting sludge remains tricky. Locally, waste banks—which pay locals to clean, sort, and take in recyclables—have been gaining momentum in recent years. Between 2014 and 2018, the number of waste banks in Indonesia increased more than sixfold to almost 8,000 sites.
More common, some households burn plastic waste for fuel, and burying everyday plastic waste is common practice outside Asia’s major cities. In some parts of Indonesia, for instance, plastic waste from Australia is burnt as fuel to make tofu with, as firewood is too expensive. Burning plastic releases toxic chemicals (dioxins) that contaminate the tofu produced, which may lead to major long-term health consequences. As tofu is a cheap protein source that makes up much of the local diet, this is a health disaster in the making.