In a trash pile on the Malaysian island of Pulau Indah lies some sausage packaging from the Bavarian producer Wolf — “a family butchery since 1925.” It's a long way from home: A good 9,700 kilometers, or 6,000 miles. And there are also German-branded detergent bottles, cooked ham wrappers, plastic netting that once held fruit or onions and packaging for traditional Swabian pasta. Some of the plastic appears to be industrial waste — some of the big bags are marked with codes that indicate exactly where they came from. This junk is definitely Germany’s.
The refuse isn’t there because of hordes of sausage-hungry German litterers, though. It appears to have been exported to Malaysia, even though there are strict rules about Germans sending their waste abroad. Plastics can only be exported for recycling. Germany’s statistics bureau supposedly tracks this, accounting for every single gram of exported plastic waste and reporting that it has been recycled. So, you may ask, why are these mountains of German garbage lying around on this Malaysian island? It doesn’t look like recycling from this vantage.
Around a year ago, China banned the import of plastic waste, at which point Malaysia became the first choice for those who want to send their plastic elsewhere. Between January and October 2018, Germany exported 114,000 tons of plastic rubbish to Malaysia, an increase of 125 percent. Germany produced around 6.2 million tons of plastic waste in 2017, according to the environmental ministry. A little over half of that was burned, while most of the rest is recycled; about a third of that recycling takes place outside the country.
Surveying the recycling process in Malaysia, though, it quickly becomes clear that, although German supermarkets and manufacturers boast about their recycling prowess, their responsibility for the process doesn’t appear to extend beyond the country’s borders.
Digging into the garbage pile
Using the codes on the plastics, WirtschaftsWoche reporters, together with investigators from the ZDF show Frontal 21, tried to find out who was responsible for some of the garbage piling up in Malaysia. Two supermarkets, Aldi and Edeka, insist they work with certified waste and recycling specialists to get rid of their plastics, as do the onion and fruit suppliers. Tracing the errant sausage wrapping back even further leads to a company called Südpack. The opening page on the company's website boasts of its commitment to sustainable packaging. A call to Südpack's Johannes Remmele confirms that some of their packaging is not recyclable: It must be burned, and they employ certified firms to do this.
In Germany that costs money: An incinerator in Schwandorf charges €150 per ton of industrial waste but this can increase to €800 per ton depending on the material. But exporting the plastic is a lot less expensive: Sea freight for plastic refuse costs around €40 a ton. German statistics estimate the cost of exporting it at an average €180 per ton.
Südpack disputes that the plastic Wolf sausage wrapping that WirtschaftsWoche found in Malaysia is theirs, and after a test of the plastic, says it didn’t come from their factory. Another plastics supplier to the butchery, Rolf Bayer, also examines the wrapping and says it’s not theirs, either.
After all the back and forth, the various tests and interviews, it still isn’t clear where that particular piece of German-made plastic discarded in Malaysia came from.
One man who's happy to admit to shipping German plastic junk offshore is Hans-Dieter Wilcken, of the waste disposal firm Nehlsen. In comparison to the unruly and upsetting piles of garbage in Malaysia, his company’s site in Bremen’s industrial zone looks like Netflix tidying guru Marie Kondo had a go at it. Nehlsen deals with between 20,000 and 25,000 tons of plastic waste a year, and all of it appears to be carefully sorted, stacked and labeled.
Stopping in front of a tidy mountain of red, white and blue plastic, Wilcken explains that “this would have gone to Asia” before China banned it. In Germany, the rubbish would be sorted by machine and then further sorted by hand in China. The Chinese had developed a very efficient recycling industry, he adds.
After the Chinese import ban, Wilcken sent a few container loads of waste to Malaysia. “But it quickly became clear to us that this was not a good substitute,” he explains. “If you follow the discussion about plastic garbage in the sea, you cannot export there in good conscience.” Now he sends plastic that can’t be recycled to the incinerator. It’s not ideal, he concedes, but it’s better than sending it to Malaysia or elsewhere in Asia where the infrastructure can't yet deal with it and the local politicians are not particularly conscientious about the imported waste. “I’ll say this openly: It’s legal but we don’t want it [that kind of business],” Wilcken argues.
Recycling for the future
Slowly but surely, German politicians are also becoming aware of the issues with plastic recycling. If German plastic is being exported and dumped, then that is “simply wrong,” agrees Jochen Flasbarth, a state secretary at the environment ministry. “This is an abuse — even criminal under certain circumstances — that we need to take action against.” His ministry wants to look more closely at how other countries are working with German plastic waste, he adds.
While producers of non-recyclable plastics, like Südpack, are hoping that science will provide an answer — BASF is looking into so-called “chemical recycling,” where plastics are broken down and reconstituted — imported waste has already caused real harm in Malaysia.
Some of the neighbors living near the garbage mountains in Pulau Indah have had to go to the hospital with respiratory issues, and local authorities suspect that the associated heavy metals have seeped into surrounding land and water, including a nearby shrimp farm. But as yet, nothing is being done about it — not by the Malaysian authorities, the German government, nor the apparently blameless German companies whose trash ends up so far from home.
Jacqueline Goebel and Henryk Hielscher are reporters and editors with WirtschaftsWoche, a sister publication of Handelsblatt. To contact the author: [email protected]