Follow the smell, and you’re going to find them: flaming lots of dirty plastic, gushing black smoke, bringing death to a spot in a different way swarming with life.
Those are the coastal lowlands along Malaysia’s side of the Strait of Malacca. It is a most comfortable place, studded with big arms and woodland canopies dripping with vines. However, in the last year, black columns of smoke have appeared above the treetops.
Tan See Han, a person in his forties who grew up within the area, spends his nights and weekends expelling the fumes. He drives around, sniffing out acrid fires and planning their coordinates on his phone. Every site is reported to the provincial government in the hopes that some official will do something.
A burn pile hid down a chain of twisting roads again. People smell it before they see it, even from truck’s rolled up windows. Rounding the nook, it comes into view: a small mound of still-smoldering plastic that may be burned black.
The burning frequently begins around nighttime. At dawn, people can notice a hearth pit as big as a house. It all fueled by plastic scrap, which is derived from crude oil and therefore quick to burn.
Stepping gingerly through the smoky heap leaves sizzling goop on our footwear. The fumes flip your eyes crimson. “You’ll see it on the labels. Made in USA! And it’s most commonly plastic packaging for food.” says Tan