Follow the stench and you will find them: flaming heaps of dirty plastic, gushing black smoke, bringing death to a place otherwise teeming with life.
These are the coastal lowlands along Malaysia’s side of the Strait of Malacca. This is a mostly lush place, studded with fat palms and forest canopies dripping with vines. But over the past year and a half, black pillars of smoke have appeared above the treetops.
Tan See Han, a man in his forties who grew up in the area, spends his nights and weekends chasing the fumes. He drives around, sniffing out acrid pyres and plotting their coordinates on his phone. Each site is reported to the provincial authorities in the hopes that someone important will do something.
Tan drives me to one of his latest finds: a burn pile hidden down a series of twisting back roads. We smell it before we see it, even with his truck’s windows rolled up. Rounding the corner, it comes into view: a small mound of still-smoldering plastic that is scorched black.
It’s only 8 a.m. but we’re already late, Tan says. The burning usually begins around midnight. Had we arrived in the pre-dawn darkness, he says, you might’ve seen a fire pit as big as a house. All of it fueled by plastic scrap, which is derived from crude oil and thus quick to burn.
Stepping gingerly through the smoky heap leaves hot goop on our shoes. The fumes turn our eyes pink. “Most of this plastic — well, the main country — it’s the USA,” Tan says. “You’ll see it on the labels. Made in USA! And it’s mostly plastic packaging for food.”
Around the site, there are bulbous sacks of plastic junk, some of them spilling out of metal shipping containers. This scrap is what fuels the burn pile. There’s waste from the United Kingdom, Australia, Sweden and the Netherlands but — as Tan says — much of it comes from the United States.
There are the remnants of 5-Hour Energy drinks. Shaved Parmesan Cheese, sold by the Midwestern grocery chain SuperValu. V8 tomato juice sold by Family Dollar. Electrolyte solution from Target. And so many water bottles: Aquafina, Perrier, Trader Joe’s Sparkling Natural Spring Water…read more