Rainbow Warrior: On a mission to rid world of plastic waste

On the Greenpeace ship Rainbow Warrior, about halfway through the 14-day voyage to the Philippines from Malaysia, bitter cold jolted the senses of Heng Kiah Chun, who felt the most melancholic sensation as if “the depressing shades of blue seemed to close in around me” and “the vastness of the South China Sea and sky was going to swallow me up.”

In an interview with Maritime Fairtrade on March 26, Heng, who works for Greenpeace for nine years, and is one of the founding members of Greenpeace Malaysia, said his activism experience proved invaluable when in 2014, he applied for a job with Greenpeace and secured the Project Staff position. The Greenpeace Malaysia office was set up in 2017. 

As Heng ventured up to the deck of the ‘Rainbow Warrior’, he discovered that the crew members had gathered together and were swapping tales with each other. He got a cup of hot chocolate, sat down, and snuggled himself in a blanket for extra comfort. But at that moment, within the circle, thinking to himself, “I can muster up the courage to share my story. I’m not alone.”

Heng’s passion and commitment to activism have never wavered since his student years. To him, activism means “fighting for a cause that one believes in”. Holding onto the belief that people have the power to effect change, he partnered up with student activists from different fields and universities to demand freedom in academia and the privatization of education. 

The Rainbow Warrior ship. Photo credit: AnnJil Chong

Not only was 2018 a momentous event for Malaysia and the Rainbow Warrior but also for Heng as well. He took the lead in the Plastic Waste Campaign and achieved his biggest accomplishment yet with the publication of The Recycling Myth: Malaysia and the Broken Global Recycling System report, which he co-authored. Through this work, he uncovered issues with the imported plastic trade.

“Despite having limited resources, the Plastic Waste Campaign was successful in making a significant impact,” Heng said, “This project posed a great challenge and required maximum effort from the newly-established Greenpeace Malaysia, but we received a significant amount of backing and support.”

According to Heng, China stopped importing plastic waste from high-income countries in early 2018. Southeast Asian nations, however, stepped in to replace the lost market and Malaysia was one of the biggest importers during this time, with nearly half a million tons being imported between January and July 2018. An international trade system, based on multilateral agreements, is supposed to regulate the selling, buying, importing, and exporting of recyclable plastic wastes. 

However, the 2018 Greenpeace investigation showed that this international trade system was broken. Waste imported from other countries was usually not dealt with properly and got either burned or dumped in sites with no regulation, thereby contravening international agreements. 

Criminal gangs in Southeast Asia were taking advantage of the lack of regulations and law enforcement to make fast and easy money from the increasing amount of plastic waste imports. This had been made possible due to the inability of legal entities and the failure of governing authorities to keep up with it.

Despite the temporary ban on imports in Malaysia, unregulated or poorly regulated burning and dumping activities were still taking place. The existing policies and practices for monitoring and enforcement of these operations in Malaysia had not been effective enough to put an end to them.

Heng took the lead in investigating plastic waste. Photo Credit: Nandakumar S. Haridas / Greenpeace  

“The report we (Greenpeace Malaysia) launched was met with much attention from both local and international media, such as BBC and CNN,” Heng said. “They (International media) journeyed here (Malaysia) to investigate the plastic waste situation and put pressure on their respective governments to take responsibility for it.”

“The CNN investigation into the US trash, for instance, revealed a global problem. Plastic waste was not always recycled properly, disproving the notion that all plastic waste was being recycled,” he added. “This incident served as an eye-opener and pushed governments across the world to take action on this issue.”

In early 2019, the Malaysian government declared their decision to repatriate all imported waste found at the Klang and Penang ports back to its country of origin. However, there is still no clear indication as to what will be done with the leftover trash within Malaysia.

Greenpeace Malaysia conducted a joint investigation in mid-2019 at various sites that were suspected of storing imported plastic waste. The aim of the investigation was to assess the situation and take necessary action.

Heng said, “During our visit to Kuala Langat and Klang, we were shocked by the amount of plastic waste from Germany, Belgium, to name a few, that was present there.”

German plastic waste found in Malaysia. Photo Credit: Fred Dott/ Greenpeace

“After assessing the situation, the Malaysian government realized that they couldn’t return the plastic waste scattered outside of its containers due to contamination,” Heng explained. “However, the waste inside the containers was successfully shipped back to its original countries.”

Maritime Fairtrade inquired about how the Malaysian government addressed the contaminated plastic waste. “Because there was no other option, the items had to be disposed of at either a landfill or a facility designed for pyrolysis,” Heng replied. “A follow-up report titled, “The Recycling Myth 2.0: The Toxic After-Effects of Imported Plastic Waste in Malaysia” was published, which contained all relevant details. 

There were some terrifying moments, too. When asked about the biggest challenge he faced, Heng recalled that two BMW cars blocked their way during a site visit. The men inside the cars claimed to be gangsters and they threatened the activists, saying they could pull strings with politicians and that people could meet their untimely demise in car accidents without anyone being held accountable.

“We anticipated the potential consequences of our exposure of polluters, given their power and wealth,” he said. “However, we were caught off guard by the fear expressed by some members of the local community.”

Worse was to come. “The house of a local community member was vandalized with red paint,” he said. “Although we filed a report with the police and several individuals have been taken into custody, but their leader remains unknown and at large.”

He continued: “I felt bad because there wasn’t much we could offer to the local community. They weren’t after money or material things, all they wanted was solidarity. It would have been supportive to accompany them to the police station if something had occurred, so that they feel less alone.”

Fast-forwarding to March 2023, the Rainbow Warrior returned to Malaysia for the second time. A yellow banner with “Keadilan Iklim” (Malay for Climate Justice) had been affixed to its side, expressing solidarity with Malaysians and furthering Heng’s Air Pollution Campaign.

A yellow banner with “Keadilan Iklim” had been affixed to the Rainbow Warrior’s side. Photo Credit: AnnJil Chong

“Clean air is a fundamental right of every human being. Unfortunately, haze pollution has been a major issue for Malaysians for over two decades, wreaking havoc on people’s health, quality of life, and the economy. The long-term consequences of this toxic smog have brought about immense worry and concern,” Heng said. “Thus, the Malaysian government must take steps to reduce air pollution in order to guarantee this right.”

He continued: “My campaign focuses on raising awareness of air pollution and enforcing legal measures to improve the air quality. This included publishing an air pollution report, Different Air Under One Sky: The Inequality Air Research, filing complaints to the Malaysian Human Right Commission (SUHAKAM), creating a report on clean air being a basic right, partnering with artivists to highlight the importance of enacting Transboundary Haze Pollution Act, and creating videos highlighting PM2.5 air pollution.

“We have only scratched the surface of what is possible in terms of air pollution solutions in Malaysia. It will take collective action to make a lasting impact. Together, Malaysians can do much more than we would be able to do on our own.”

Haze and human rights activity in Malaysia. Photo Credit: Darshen Chelliah/ Greenpeace

The term Rainbow Warrior was drawn from an old Cree Native American prophecy that promised a time when people would “Rise up like Warriors of the Rainbow…” in moments of crisis and distress.

Spending two weeks aboard the Rainbow Warrior for an on-board training left a deep impression on Heng. Unlike anyone else, the iconic Greenpeace vessel represents much more than just inspiring values to him; it is about a spirit of solidarity that transcends all. This spirit has been ingrained in him, and he will always share it with his team, local communities, and Malaysia.

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