Why are we so far behind in waste management?

Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad raised a very pertinent question at the MIGHT dialogue session earlier this week. It was the right platform to talk about waste management as the event was attended by four relevant ministers and no fewer than 60 senior industry players from various sectors.

Waste management is not a new subject but our approach to the issue, especially on the policy formulation front, has been very disappointing to say the least. After several decades of policy abeyance, from the time Mahathir himself privatised rubbish collection through a monopolistic entity, Alam Flora, which was commendable at that time, the country has basically stood still as far as new technology is concerned.

I would have thought this would be one of the first issues the Pakatan Harapan (PH) government would tackle in the interest of the country’s long-term strategy for environmental protection. Although it was not part of PH’s manifesto, the issue is critical and important from many perspectives including both social and economic.

Yet, we are still grappling with an out-of-date “landfill strategy” which experts are now saying has destroyed our water table and contaminated our water supply systems. This is indeed a high price to pay for the lack of understanding in dealing with the ecosystem required in waste management.

Domestic waste, as we understand today, is still not separated at the source. Everything is lumped together and conveniently sent to landfills for a tipping fee. Various companies make money from sub-contracting rubbish collection and sending it to landfill operators.

Look East policy

Obviously, the current system does not encourage the separation of rubbish at its source as it makes no difference either to the people who are involved in and operate the system or the collectors and landfill operators. They do it simply for monetary reward, nothing more.

Are the ministers and government officers closing their eyes and pretending that all is well with this approach and payment system?

Mahathir tells us to “look East”, especially to Japan and South Korea. Incidentally, these are also the two leading countries when it comes to waste management and the use of the latest technology, often referred to as the integrated waste management approach.

In both countries, domestic waste is separated at the source, that is, homes. Japanese and South Koreans are taught from young how to deal with rubbish. They do not litter or expect cleaners to take care of their mess. What happened at football stadiums after the World Cup matches in Moscow is a common example of their behaviour towards waste management.

In fact, manufacturers of products sold in the market plan in advance how their waste, such as containers, wrappers and packets, can be recycled or disposed of.

Recycling and waste disposal has become an industry in and of itself. Together with the incineration of solid waste and aided by solar technology input that generates electricity, which justifies the cost of building an integrated waste management plant, it is now a trend in these two countries. The industry jargon “WtW” or waste-to-wealth is now commonly used.

But sadly, this has not happened in Malaysia.

Why are Malaysian households not taught how to separate and recycle their waste? Why haven’t our local authorities, which are primarily responsible for waste collection and management, designed their system along a similar line to that of Japan or South Korea?

Why do local authorities supply only one orange bin to all households? Does that mean they encourage all types of rubbish to be thrown into that one bin? What are they thinking? Is there a link between them and the landfill operators?

Start from school

What about schools and higher learning institutions? Are the students not taught about waste management and how to treat different types of rubbish? Are reuse and recycling no longer taught in schools?

If teachers do not recycle at home, are they fit to teach recycling and waste management to their students?

As a community, we have failed in waste management. Judging from the rubbish strewn all over the place in some schools, maintaining cleanliness and looking after our environment is no longer part of the school curriculum.

Why is there only one type of bin in schools and public places? Shouldn’t we put up three or four different types for different waste such as plastic, paper and glass?

Clearly, when Mahathir raised this issue at the dialogue, he wanted to see it tackled immediately and with the appropriate technology. Otherwise, why raise the issue in front of leading ministers and industrialists?

Another area linked to domestic waste is the disposal of solid waste or items such as refrigerators, ovens, microwaves, computers, household appliances and office furniture. Incinerators built in integrated waste management plants in Japan and South Korea are designed to deal with such products too. Therefore, both types of waste can be disposed of simultaneously.

The solutions to waste management problems are all there, provided that a policy framework is first put in place. In Malaysia, the policy framework should start at the Cabinet level with the cancellation of the present arrangement where a monopolistic body is responsible for the collection of rubbish.

Next is the issue of the state government banning all landfill sites from operating and functioning as dumping grounds. Fees from the local authorities should not be channelled like this.

Studies should be done immediately and proper integrated waste management plants should be built with a parallel and comprehensive plan of action for household education and media campaigns. These should also be implemented by the state government and eventually by the local authorities.

At the end of the day, the rates you pay to the local authorities include rubbish collection. So a proper job on this issue is expected from them.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.