They were arrested during a government crackdown on unlicensed plastic recycling companies as the country sought to stem a growing illegal industry.
"It's illegal," said Yeo Bee Yin, Malaysia's Minister of Energy, Science, Technology and Environment, and Climate Change, who participated in the raid and invited journalists to watch.
"It's against the Environmental Quality Act because there are no licenses and they pollute."
Malaysia is attacking opportunists who are trying to ban China's decision last year to ban the import of plastic waste. Since July 2018, officials have closed at least 148 unauthorized plastic recycling factories ̵
Much of the waste comes from countries outside Malaysia, including the US, which upsets Yeo, who says wealthy countries should not use their land as landfill.
"I'll take care of my garbage" She says. "You should take care of yours."
"No Magic Land of Recycling"
The rise of illegal recycling companies in Malaysia and elsewhere in Southeast Asia has revealed the lazy side of an industry that experts say is "green."
"There is no magical land of recycling with rainbows and unicorns, it's a lot more bitter than that," says Martin Bourque, executive director of Ecology Center in Berkeley, California, a nonprofit group working on curbside recycling programs since 1973.
In the center's factory, workers wearing protective aprons and work gloves sort a dirty procession of metal and glass waste clattering along a conveyor belt.
The recycling of paper explains Bourque. Tin and aluminum "saves a lot of energy and natural resources."
But about 40% of the non-blended plastic his organization collects is not recycled – either because it's too expensive or too hard plastic to pr, contaminated with food or other materials, or simply there is no market for it Kind of plastic.
That's why this plastic goes directly to the landfill. Bourque says that's because he can not find a destination where the plastic can be recycled without harming the environment.
"We would rather see them in a landfill, then export them to a foreign country where we do not know what the final destination will be," explains Bourque.
As soon as unrecycled plastic scrap leaves the plant, it becomes an internationally traded commodity, which usually has different hands from the place of origin to the final destination, making it difficult to track it.
To ensure that the plastic is properly recycled, the Berkeley plant has carried out an experiment. Using a GPS tracking device to track plastic garbage, they learned that their shipments landed in China and Malaysia.
There, according to Bourque, local environmental researchers found evidence of plastic material being dumped in ravines and waterways. For the plastic that went into a recycling plant, there were reports of poor working conditions and the discharge of contaminated water from local facilities into local streams.
"We believe it is a real problem that mixed plastics from recycling programs could be dumped into the environment in (developing) countries," says Bourque.
Plastic scrap – an international commodity
In the last quarter of a century, much of the plastic scrap collected in the United States was shipped to China for recycling. According to experts, China's booming manufacturing industry was hungry for raw materials.
"China was absolutely ready to accept these materials and pay a very high price," says Bourque. This has led to little incentive for entrepreneurs to invest in labor-intensive plastic processing equipment in industrialized countries.
A huge mountain of unrecycled plastic dumped in Malaysia.
This practice, however, came to an abrupt end in January 2018 when China announced a ban on the import of plastic waste as part of an environmental cleanup initiative.
The move caused a ripple effect through global supply chains as mid-sized men sought new destinations for tons of plastic waste.
Malaysia quickly became one of those places.
According to a recent Greenpeace report, plastic waste exported to Malaysia from the US more than doubled in the first seven months of 2018 compared to the previous year.
And the US was not alone. Other top exporters of plastic scrap to Malaysia are Japan, UK, Germany and Hong Kong, according to the Malaysian government.
The increase in plastic imports to Malaysia seems to encourage the creation of unlicensed recyclers across the country to deal with the additional capacity in the industry.
At the beginning of last year, Lay Peng Pua said she smelled smoky vapors in the rural town of Yenjarom.
"I felt something wrong with the air, but I did not know where it came from," she says.
Lay and other locals have mobilized to find the source of the fumes. To their horror, they discovered that nearby recycling shops were burning large quantities of plastic that could not be easily processed and resold.
Different plastics have different values. Some unregulated operators buy mixed plastics in large quantities and find it cheaper to illegally incinerate or dispose of less valuable material than to process it so as to harm the environment less.
On the outskirts of the city, towering stacks of abandoned plastic remains are still visible in a partially burned-out warehouse. The manufacturers seem to have fled. A spokesperson for the district council says the property owner has been issued with a criminal record claiming he did not know that the tenants were running a recycling facility.
Some of the tons of plastic at this location seem to come from overseas – there is a wrapper for Poland Spring bottled water from Stamford, Connecticut, a bottle of Palmer's Cocoa Butter Formula, manufactured in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, and a bag of Metcalfe skinny popcorn packed in the UK.
While Lay's Team Claims to Have More Than Found In 40 illegal factories from February to July 2018, critics argue that the punishment they face constitutes a weak deterrent. According to the government, only six people were charged with illegal recycling. One of them was sentenced to a single day in prison.
But Minister of the Environment Yeo believes the blame is not just in their country: "Ask your government, ask the waste management companies, where is this plastic that you have carefully separated?"
Malaysia has approved plastic recyclers. One example is C-Square International Trading in an industrial park in the Malaysian port city of Klang near Kuala Lumpur.
Huge bales of dingy, used plastic bags – some with the slogan "Walmart-Save money" provided. Live better "- are stacked 15 feet high in the facility.
" This is gold for me! "says Choon Boon Ng, founder of the pilot recycling facility.
Malaysian-American Ng says its company recycles plastic waste from Walmart stores in several US Midwestern states.
The plant will route plastic bags to a number of facilities Machines that wash, crush and slice the plastic into small flakes that are blown out of a "cyclone" machine into a white tornado that looks like a blizzard.
The flakes are collected, melted and hot 'hot fire' – gray paste that comes out of a machine like huge toothpaste – which then goes through a rust that turns it into small pellets.
Ng says that one-ton sacks of these pellets cost around $ 850 can be sold per piece and make a considerable profit, everything from children's toys to soles can be made from this material.  "They actually give him a new life," says Ng. "That's what I love about recycling."
According to CC Cheah, vice president of the Malaysian Plastics Manufacturers Association, which has 90 legal plastic recyclers among its 750 members, Malaysia needs more well-stocked plastic to power its industry.  "What is collected here [in Malaysia] is not enough to support the local recycling industry," he says. "That's why we have to resort to the import of plastic waste from other countries."
Malaysia Says Enough
In response to growing complaints about illegal recycling companies, the Malaysian government issued a temporary import ban on most plastic waste in October 2018. This has also affected the country's approved plastic recyclers.
"Local recycling companies in Malaysia who abide by the rules and conduct proper recycling suffer from it," says CC Cheah.
Last year, other Southeast Asian countries, such as Thailand, Vietnam and India, reportedly took measures to restrict imports of foreign plastic waste. In the US ports, plastic containers were waiting for a target.
There are still plastic stacks in this abandoned illegal recycling factory.
Bourque from Berkeley's Ecological Center Belongs to It The ban on plastic waste from illegal operators does not send the wrong message and prevents Americans from recycling.
But he also warns that consumers will eventually have to look for alternatives to disposable plastic packaging. Otherwise we could one day drown in all this plastic.
Back in Malaysia, Lay has a very simple message for the West.
"The countries sending their garbage to my country, please stop!" Lay says. "Try to farm your own waste in your own land on your own land."