Tracking transnational plastic waste in Southeast Asia

23 May 2023
Researching plastic pollution in Malaysia and beyond
Dr Shiori Shakuto from the School of Social and Political Sciences discusses her research into the transnational problem of plastic waste in countries such as Malaysia.

Dr Shiori Shakuto is a Lecturer in Anthropology at the University of Sydney. Her feminist research includes a particular focus on the movement of people and (domestic) things between Japan and Malaysia.

SSEAC spoke with Shiori about two current research projects that explore the dynamics of transnational plastic waste and its unequal distribution from large waste export countries to import countries such as Malaysia.

Tell us about your current research on marine plastics and other waste in Southeast Asia.

A major theme of this research is to follow plastic waste from the Global North to the Global South. I’m involved in two separate but complementary projects. The first is looking at social dynamics in three countries, Japan, Singapore, and Australia, and how factors such as gender contribute to the production of so much plastic waste in these countries. This project, ‘Plastic Waste and Gendered Household Practices in Asia and the Pacific’, involves Professor Brenda Yeoh (Geography) and Dr Natalie Pang (Media and Communications) at the National University of Singapore. It includes fieldwork, archival research, and also social media analysis to understand how people’s views on plastics shift depending on their gendered positions and geographical location, whether they live in a rural area, near the sea, etc.

The second project is focused on the transnational plastic waste that ends up in Southeast Asian countries, including Malaysia and Thailand. I’m specifically focused on what happens to Japanese transnational waste in Malaysia. Technically, Malaysia has banned the import of untreated plastics into the country. But I have been conducting fieldwork on an island called Pulau Indah, very close to the capital Kuala Lumpur, where you can see a range of foreign plastics, not just from Japan, but also from European countries. I’m also seeking to understand how people in Malaysia understand plastic pollution and, as part of this, I’m collaborating with University of Malaya researcher (Zeeda Fatimah Binti Mohamad) and a student (Eunice Soon Wai Hieu) as well as activists (Persatuan Tindakan Alam Sekitar Kuala Langat and Center for Orang Asli Concerns) to explore the issue of plastic waste in coastal Indigenous communities.

The research in Malaysia is part of a much bigger interdisciplinary project, ‘Risks and Solutions: Marine Plastics in South East Asia’, led by conservation biologist Brendan Godley (University of Exeter) and chemical scientist Suresh Valiyaveettil (National University of Singapore). We recently published a review paper summarising the problem of marine plastics in Southeast Asia, identifying some of the solutions and areas for research. There were 60 co-authors, so you can see how large the project is. As an anthropologist, I’m offering a social scientific perspective and looking at, for example, some of the factors of geopolitical inequality that contribute to this distribution of plastic waste.

Waste on Pulau Indah, an island near the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur.

How did you come to be interested in these issues?

My previous research was about Japanese people in Malaysia, both retirees and disaster evacuees. After the Fukushima disaster in 2011, a lot of young families from Japan migrated to Malaysia. In my interviews with them, it was puzzling and interesting that when I asked what they brought from Japan to Malaysia, instead of mentioning photographs of their family members or something like that, they told me they brought this Japanese plastic wrap called saran wrap, which is like cling wrap. I thought this was random and strange, but it was consistent among almost everyone I interviewed. I then became interested in the significance of plastics in Japan. This coincided with the period when China banned imports of foreign plastic waste, and Malaysia then replaced China as a large waste importer. I thought it was an interesting parallel that Japanese migrants were bringing in this plastic wrap, but also on a larger scale, the Japanese government is sending its plastic waste to Malaysia.

Tell us about the island near Kuala Lumpur where you’re conducting research.

One of the interesting things about this island is the name. It’s Pulau Indah, which translates to ‘beautiful island’, which is such an irony. There’s a big port in Kuala Lumpur called Port Klang and because it was becoming overcrowded, the government decided to create Pulau Indah as a second port. They started building all these townships, houses and shop lots but it was uncovered that there was a lot of corruption going on and the project was paused. When you visit, there are all these houses and shops but no one is occupying them except for migrant workers. There are trucks that drive into these abandoned shop lots and unload plastic waste. So that’s the kind of landscape we’re talking about. I haven’t yet interviewed people on the island but we have spoken to some Indigenous communities very close to the island, and their village is also affected by marine plastic waste. It’s interesting that when I talk to them about the transnational waste that’s abandoned in their neighbourhood on Pulau Indah, they associate it with the migrant workers and foreigners. People differentiate between types of plastic waste: “bad waste” that’s associated with foreigners, and marine waste which they have almost become quite familiar with.

Shiori at Tanjung Harapan.

In what ways is this plastic pollution experienced by people?

When you visit the area of Tanjung Harapan near Pulau Indah, you see all these Indigenous villages by the sea and their houses look like they’ve been buried by plastic waste of different types and colours. It’s a really disturbing sight. Most visitors would think it must be awful to be always looking at so much plastic waste. But when we spoke with the villagers, they said it wasn’t really the sight of all this waste that bothered them the most. What really disturbed them was the sound it makes. Because plastics are kind of hard, in the mangrove area where it collects, the waste rubs together and creates so much noise throughout the night that it disturbs their sleep. This was a really interesting and disturbing realisation for me: that plastic pollution can also involve sound pollution, which we don’t often associate with plastic.

What are you hoping this research may shed light on?

Talking to people in Japan, very few of them know that Japan is one of the biggest exporters of plastic waste to Malaysia. Japan is really well known for its sorting economy. Different municipalities in Japan have different rules but one that’s more stringent asks their residents to sort their waste into 45 different categories. When I interviewed people from that particular municipality, they said they have about 15-20 sorting boxes at home and sort plastics into five different categories. But there is this belief that sorting is recycling, and that their plastic will be recycled. In fact, only 20% of plastic that has been sorted from the household becomes another plastic product, and much of it is sent to Malaysia. When we think about recycling, it’s not often done on a transnational scale. One of the aims of my research is to make the recycling process visible at the global scale, and explore how this problematises some of the processes that we think we’re contributing to. 

Waste among homes in Tanjung Harapan.

Recent articles