AsianScientist (Jul. 19, 2019) – Earlier this year, Malaysia’s Minister of Energy, Science, Technology, Environment and Climate Change, together with her inspection team, discovered 450 metric tons of contaminated, low-quality plastic waste that was brought into the country illegally in shipping containers.
Standing defiant in front of international press on May 29, Ms. Yeo Bee Yin said: “Enough is enough.”
The containers, Yeo said, had originated from Australia, the US, Canada, Saudi Arabia, Japan, China and Bangladesh, and were en route to illegal recycling facilities in Malaysia to be processed in an environmentally unsafe manner. Yeo estimated that they would find 3,000 metric tons of plastic waste once all the containers were inspected.
“Although people have started to segregate their waste, 90 percent of the plastic waste in the world is actually not recycled,” Yeo shared with Asian Scientist Magazine from her office in Putrajaya, the government district south of the capital city of Kuala Lumpur.
“Instead, this waste goes from developed countries to developing countries like Malaysia, and ends up being dumped in some way or recycled in illegal factories.”
Revelations such as these have led to a collective awakening to the very real issue of plastic waste, which cannot degrade in the environment. Single-use plastics that aren’t recycled or buried in landfills make their way into the ocean via littering and illegal dumping, where they eventually degrade into microparticles that damage aquatic life and enter the human food chain. In fact, a recent report by WWF International estimated that people consume about five grams of plastic a week, roughly equivalent to the size of a credit card.
From plantations to politics
Growing up on a sprawling oil palm plantation where her father worked, Yeo had an idyllic childhood and an excellent education record. The plantation she grew up on, called Gomali Estate, was owned by palm oil and properties conglomerate IOI Group. This would prove to be a prescient start to her life and career in two ways: her ministerial energy portfolio, and her life partner—but more on that later.
After completing her degree in chemical engineering at the University Technology Petronas in 2006, Yeo joined US oil and gas company Schlumberger, where she worked for two years on oil exploration and production. Seeking a change, Yeo applied to Cambridge University, UK, where she pursued a Master’s degree in advanced chemical engineering on a Gates Cambridge Scholarship.
But by the time she returned to Malaysia as a highly trained engineer, Yeo found herself drawn into a new and unexpected calling—politics. Wanting to contribute to her country and stem Malaysia’s brain drain, in 2013 Yeo contested for a state assembly seat on a Democratic Action Party ticket and won a landslide victory.
Five years later, an even more drastic change awaited. The 14th General Election in 2018 was a political turning point for Malaysia, which since independence in 1963 had been ruled by the Malay nationalist party United Malays National Organization. In that historic election, voters across all ethnicities responded in large numbers, helping to elect Dr. Mahathir Mohamad’s Pakatan Harapan coalition into power. Yeo, whose party was a key member of the coalition, was picked as Minister of Energy, Science, Technology, Environment and Climate Change and sworn into office on July 2, 2018, making her the youngest female cabinet minister at age 35.
Replace, the fourth ‘R’
While plastics account for only 10 percent of the total waste humans generate, they constitute approximately 90 percent of all trash floating on the ocean’s surface, equivalent to 46,000 pieces of plastic floating on every square mile, says the United Nations Environment Program. At the current rate, a 2016 report from the World Economic Forum estimated that plastics will outweigh all the fish in the ocean by 2050. And since it is impossible to rid the oceans of plastic waste and microplastics, the problem needs to be tackled at the source.
Since taking office, Yeo has made plastic pollution a key policy focus. Besides plastic straws—500 million of which are used every single day in the US alone—the problem also includes disposable plastic bottles, packaging, construction materials and other industrial uses of plastic.
Malaysia is ranked 8th in mismanaged plastic waste, behind China in first place, Indonesia in second place and the Philippines in third place, according to a study published in the journal Science in 2015. This statistic has not gone unnoticed by Yeo, who, on October 31, 2018, announced a 12-year roadmap and legal framework towards eliminating single-use plastics in Malaysia by 2030.
“If you go to the beach and collect rubbish, more than half of the rubbish is single-use plastics. So, reducing the usage of single-use plastics and changing behavior are very important. Our first three years of the roadmap are really just on shopping bags and education,” Yeo said.
In phase one of the plan, single-use plastic bags will cost consumers a nominal 20 sen (US$0.048) per bag. In states such as Penang, supermarkets, department stores and pharmacies have gone a step further and stopped dispensing single-use plastic bags altogether.
The 20 sen cost is not simply punitive, Yeo said, pointing out that recycling plastic waste isn’t exactly free either.
“Hydrocarbon-based plastics have proven to be very difficult to recycle—many of them have to be recycled illegally to make it work [for the contractors financially]. People need to pay not just for the cost of production, but also for the cost to recycle the plastics [in an environmentally safe manner].”
Just one percent of plastics produced globally (or four million tons per year) is biodegradable, according to a 2017 study in Science Advances. To make matters more complex, even polymers that are touted as bioplastics may not degrade as claimed—most require elevated temperatures for degradation and hardly break down under natural conditions. Even worse, they degrade into microplastics, worsening the marine plastic pollution problem.
Yeo’s 12-year roadmap thus calls for research into new materials for bioplastics.
“We are seeing that with reduce, reuse, recycle, the recycle part is really not working for plastics. So perhaps we need a fourth ‘r,’ which is to replace it, and to replace it, we need a lot of science,” Yeo said.
“What sort of materials can we use to continue packaging because you still need packaging? How do we find a material that is environmentally friendly? Biodegradable bags have a lot of science [behind them]. For some of them, the strength of the biodegradable bag is not good, and some of them don’t decompose.”
Tackling illegal trade
For the longest time, waste plastic trading was dominated by China, which had been processing at least half of the world’s exports of waste and dealing with the fallout— dumping in waterways, open burning, respiratory illness and contamination of water supplies with by-products from environmentally unsafe recycling.
That dynamic changed forever on New Year’s Day in 2018, when China closed its doors to solid waste exported from other countries. Following China’s ban, previous large exporters of plastic waste such as the US, the UK, Canada and Australia were unable to handle their domestic plastic waste liabilities. This resulted in a deluge of waste being re-routed to new export markets in Asia, such as Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia and India.
“What you can see is that even the developed countries cannot recycle their own waste. So the plastic problem is more than what people think. What China has done is that they’ve banned the import of plastics and that has opened up everyone’s eyes that this is a huge problem,” Yeo said.
In October 2018, Reuters reported that Malaysia had imported nearly half a million tons of plastic waste in the first half of the year from just the top ten source countries. A 60 Minutes report revealed that Australia alone had dumped more than 71,000 tons of plastic waste in Malaysia in just 12 months (that’s 57 percent of Australia’s annual plastic waste).
When Yeo came into office, she swiftly set up a nationwide freeze on the import of plastic waste. But newly tightened regulations on plastic waste imports resulted in more of the plastic waste going off-grid, smuggled into Malaysia in shipping containers falsely declared as imports that do not require a permit.
In recent months, Malaysia’s Department of Environment has cracked down on illegal shipments of plastic waste, and shut down illegal or non-compliant plastic recycling factories.
During the Basel Conference of the Parties which took place from April 29 to May 10, 2019, governments voted to amend the Basel Convention to better regulate the global trade in plastic waste and require the recipient country’s informed consent, something Yeo’s ministry strongly advocated for.
Besides keeping tabs on single-use plastics, Yeo wears another hat as energy minister. In this role, Yeo has announced new renewable energy targets, reforms to the electricity market and the ramping up of energy efficiency.
“We have announced [that we will raise] our renewable energy target from 2 to 20 percent, excluding large hydro by 2025. At the moment we do not want to look into large hydro because it is debatable whether large hydro is a green project since it takes up a lot of forest space, and actually removes a carbon sink,” she said.
Petronas, the national oil and gas company, can help lead Malaysia’s greening efforts by increasing its investments into renewable energy, Yeo added.
“Any energy ministry will know that you need to solve the trilemma as we call it—sustainability, reliability and affordability. So you’re not only talking about wanting to be sustainable, you’re also talking about needing to be affordable. A slow transition towards that is important. Petronas should not only focus on renewable energy, but also focus on a more efficient usage of natural gas as a transition towards more renewable energy for the world.”
A key goal of Yeo’s ministry—decarbonizing Malaysia—could be achieved with better energy storage technology and electric vehicles, she said.
“If you look into Malaysia’s energy balance, our energy is eaten up by industry, mobility and electricity. Besides decarbonization of the electricity industry, another big guzzler of our energy is transportation … The ministry this year will be looking into electric vehicle policies in Malaysia and how to incentivize electric vehicle uptake in Malaysia.”
Given that Yeo manages energy, climate change and environment portfolios, it may raise some eyebrows that her partner is Mr. Lee Yeow Seng, scion of the IOI Group, whose oil plantations in Malaysia and Indonesia cover more than 150,000 hectares of land.
When asked, Yeo debunked any link between palm oil and deforestation in Malaysia.
“If you look at Malaysia, most of our oil palm plantations are already a brownfield. That means they are already not a virgin forest. [Oil palm plantations are] ten times more productive per hectare of land in terms of oil production than soybean and grapeseed,” Yeo said.
“We definitely need to control some of the things the palm oil industry is doing, for example emissions and encroachment into the forest. What you need to do is enforcement, not a total ban.”
Stepping up industry research
Citing a 2015 World Bank report that showed Malaysia spent only 1.3 percent of its GDP on research and development (R&D), Yeo wrote on her personal blog that “this [statistic] is even lower than the average R&D spent in low- and middle-income countries.”
“When I first came in as a minister, I found that most of our grants are given to academics. Most of our R&D [funding] was spent on academics and higher education … but it’s not solving the problem; it’s not helping our economy,” Yeo told Asian Scientist Magazine.
“Historically, only 8.6 percent of R&D funding in Malaysia was spent on industry research. We now want 50 percent of [grant funding] to go to research collaborations with industry, or at least market-driven research,” said Yeo, adding that the four strategic areas her ministry is focusing on are halal food science, Islamic finance, health and wellness, and Industry 4.0.
Yeo also wants to create a pipeline of researchers to industry and raise the proportion of researchers in the private sector from the current 12 percent today.
“There used to be a huge disconnect in Malaysia between scientists and the economy. We want to completely change how this works. And we’ll start very small; we’ll start by shifting our government researchers to industry for free for this year.”
Not business as usual for Yeo
After being elected into office, Yeo was christened as one of the “Top 10 People Who Mattered in Science in 2018” by UK-based science journal Nature. In 2019, she was appointed a Young Global Leader of the World Economic Forum. Could Yeo use her twin platforms of rising public popularity and policymaking to shape the destiny of plastic use in the region?
Indeed, Yeo has ambitious plans for Malaysia to lead a new plastics circular economy in Southeast Asia.
“For the next three years we are developing a circular economy—how do we have a circular economy, not only for plastics, but also for electronic waste, like batteries? If we start changing our lifestyle to become more electrified, batteries need to be in a circular market.”
In parting, Malaysia’s plastics reformer spoke philosophically of the challenges in front of her, which include raising Malaysia’s renewable energy target tenfold by 2025 and implementing the 12-year roadmap to banning single-use plastics.
“The only thing we cannot do is say, ‘there are problems to the solution, let’s go back to business as usual,’ because you already know business as usual will not be sustainable in the future for Malaysia, and for the world,” Yeo said.
This article was first published in the July 2019 print version of Asian Scientist Magazine.
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Copyright: Asian Scientist Magazine; Photo: Bryan van der Beek/Asian Scientist Magazine.
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