C4 Center Brief No. 2: Counting the Costs for Human Rights and the Environment


China’s import ban on waste materials disrupted the global market for recyclable material, leading to an influx of, most noticeably, plastic waste to Southeast Asian countries. In 2018, Malaysia became the world’s top destination for plastic waste exports after China’s ban, with more than 850,000 tonnes of plastic waste including municipal waste entering the country.

This led to a sharp rise in illegal recycling facilities as well as illegal dumpsites, causing land, water and air pollution that affected several communities nationwide. The plastic waste recycling factories around Peninsular Malaysia were rumoured to be organised collectively, with sorting and melting done at different locations across states. Allegations of malfeasance, misconduct, and corruption abound.

The global waste trade has led to human rights violations in importing countries all over the world, leading some to coin the term “waste colonialism” where more powerful countries export their toxic waste problem to developing countries. Local communities, often marginalised groups, find themselves living in environments polluted by waste imported from developed countries. They face health risks from toxic chemicals emitted during the materials recovery process, or greenhouse gas from fires that frequently occur, while residual waste has been indiscriminately dumped. Activists fighting to protect the right to a safe, clean, healthy, and sustainable environment often face intimidation.

To find solutions, Malaysia needs to consider waste colonialism as a threat to human rights and the governance system, and not merely as an economic opportunity. The persistent illegality surrounding the processing of scrap (and other environmental crime) points to lax enforcement, which could be a consequence and cause of corruption.


To Federal, State, and Local Governments in Malaysia:

  • Implement the National Anti-Corruption Plan 2019-2023 and organisational anti-corruption plans
  • Enact the Right to Information Act to promote the right to science when communities are faced with potential pollution, and the right to information on the hazards of plastics
  • Strengthen the Whistleblower Protection Act, promote whistleblowing, and protect the confidentiality of all whistleblowers and complainants
  • Develop a National Action Plan for Business and Human Rights to protect the right to a healthy environment, to promote respect for human rights by business enterprises, and to develop accountability and access to effective remedies for people affected by rights violations
  • Reintroduce local government elections and empower local councils to better protect the rights of the communities they serve as well as uphold communities’ right to participation in decision-making that affects their lives
  • Adopt the precautionary and prevention principles of international environmental law to mitigate the risks and harms of plastics and other toxic wastes
  • Streamline the governance of the waste sector under a single body, such as the ministry for environment, across functions — from the issuance of import permits to the handling of waste pollution — to improve the management of all types of wastes (imported and domestic, solid and hazardous), as well as enhance monitoring and enforcement against pollution crimes

To the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (SUHAKAM):

  • Assist the government in developing a comprehensive National Action Plan for Business and Human Rights with a strong emphasis on anti-corruption and environmental protection
  • Conduct an inquiry into the impacts of the plastic waste crisis on human and environmental health
  • Investigate the implications of the expanding transboundary waste materials recovery industry in Malaysia
  • Promote the right to a healthy environment to government, businesses, and communities

To Businesses Including Plastic Manufacturers and Recyclers:

  • Declare any toxic additives in plastics and work to eliminate them
  • Work with the government to develop and promote a National Action Plan on Business and Human Rights
  • Encourage compliance with environmental and human rights laws and guidelines among association members and business partners
  • Invest in research and development to develop safe and circular non-single use materials
  • Develop organisational anti-corruption plans

Read more in the briefing paper here.




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