SUNGAI PETANI: Residents here are worried their town will soon earn the dubious honour of being one of the world’s largest rubbish dumps after the discovery of a site with hundreds of tonnes of plastic waste at Pinang Tunggal here.
They say the dumpsite has contributed to poor air quality up to Sungai Petani town, 8km north of the site, adding that the air is smelling like “burnt PVC and wires”.
The problem is made worse by the existence of about 30 illegal dumpsites in the Kuala Muda district masquerading as “recycling centres”, some of which occupy large industrial estate land very close to town.
Here, plastic waste is burnt in the open, polluting the air in the 922.6km square district inhabited by about 550,000 people.
The Pinang Tunggal location is just a 30-min drive to the Butterworth wharves where shipments of these unwanted plastic arrive.
In February, British news channel BBC reported that Jenjarom, which is not far from Port Klang, had been smothered in 17,000 tonnes of waste.
Last year, Greenpeace said Malaysia has become the world’s rubbish bin, as plastic waste from 19 countries was dumped here.
When FMT visited the Pinang Tunggal site, there were more than 100 sacks of plastic, each weighing at least 1.5 tonnes. There were also other types of waste on the piece of “no man’s land”.
Google Maps shows that the dumping ground measures nearly 40 acres, or close to 15 football fields.
It is situated about 2km off the Bandar Perdana (west) intersection on Jalan Lencongan Timur, where thousands of vehicles pass every day, yet the site remains not visible to most.
There were also white-coloured sacks filled with shredded plastic bits. They contain PET, or polyethene terephthalate, a large portion of which is said to be from Pakistan.
Many other municipal wastes from that country such as paan (chewable tobacco) wrappers, bags of potato chips and condom wrappers were also seen there.
Besides that, hundreds of computer parts, chips, discarded refrigerator parts, and car seats were also seen. Also spotted were insulin injector pens, breakfast menu boards from a fast-food chain with US dollar pricing, and water bottle wrappers from America. Residents say waste from Europe and Japan had also been dumped there.
Further into the site is a large clearing where a massive bonfire of discarded plastic is seen, letting out strong smell of burnt plastic.
Environmentalist Ong Kok Fooi said residents had complained about the air quality in Sungai Petani and the larger Kuala Muda district.
Ong, who chairs local environmental action group Persatuan Tindakan Alam Sekitar Sungai Petani (PTAS), said group members stumbled upon the illegal dumpsite last April after a two-month search for the source of the smell.
But that is only the tip of the iceberg.
PTAS said scores of illegal recycling factories have been operating in Sungai Petani.
Ong said they were told by state officials that only five recycling centres were allowed to operate, and 21 illegal centres were ordered shut.
But PTAS said spot checks showed it was business as usual in the 21 centres.
“When we asked why there was not enough enforcement, we were told that the Department of Environment (DoE) had just eight officers in the Kuala Muda district, and so it was difficult for them to keep tabs,” she said.
Ong said there are factories masquerading as sawmill factories, placing wood and timber in front of their factories to deceive enforcement officers.
Even a disused noodles factory had been turned into an illegal e-waste dumping ground, she added.
Ong said the people of Sungai Petani are now exposed to noxious gases emitted from this hoarding and burning sites.
“Most told us they have trouble sleeping due to the bad air quality for the past six to eight months. Almost all the residents told us they experience a ‘short circuit’ or ‘PVC’ burning smell.”
A local resident who wanted to be known as Liew, 38, said many had thought the air quality would improve when it rained but they found that it actually became worse.
After a downpour, black smoke and an acrid smell often enveloped the housing estates nearby and that black residue, believed to be from the burning, was often found deposited on their porches.
“I could not sleep well for the past six months. I am worried. I am coughing a lot,” said Liew, one of the 100,000-odd residents living in Kg Serukam, Taman Seri Astana, Taman Cendana and Taman Keladi, which are next to the Pinang Tunggal dumping site.
Another resident, Azhar Mohamad, 46, said Sungai Petani’s air quality had worsened a “fair bit” over the past year.
Meanwhile, Kedah Climate Change and Environment Committee chairman Simon Ooi Tze Min said the state government was in the midst of investigating how the sacks of plastic bits had ended up there.
“We will prevent irresponsible quarters from entering the site to dump more rubbish. Rest assured, we will ensure that we will get to the bottom of this,” he said.