Along The Watchtower

Published: Wednesday April 9, 2014 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Updated: Wednesday April 9, 2014 MYT 6:46:06 AM

The high price of being dirty

We pay too much for refuse management because we are a nation of wasteful and dirty people.

IF there is one thing that Malaysians are definitely productive at, it’s the creation of garbage.

We are now throwing away about 33,000 tonnes of waste a day, with the average person in urban areas contributing up to 1.25kg each.

Collecting and disposing these costs a colossal RM1.2bil a year, equivalent to the amount allocated to the tourism sector for Visit Malaysia Year 2014.

It means spending RM100mil a month or RM 3.3mil a day.

There is a simple reason why we are paying so much for refuse management – we are a nation of dirty and wasteful folk.

About 15,000 tonnes or 45% of our daily garbage is made up of uneaten food and kitchen waste.

The amount of what is discarded is enough to fill 7.5 football fields and could be salvaged and fed millions.

Other than overloading their plates with much more than they can munch, Malaysians are also well known for discarding rubbish anywhere they want to.

We may pride ourselves over many things but deep down, we are dirty and we know it.

All kinds of rubbish can be found on our streets, back lanes, beaches, drains, rivers and even in our forest and marine parks.

The state of our public toilets alone is enough evidence that we are still a long way from acquiring a first world mentality.

Why, we don’t even mind eating in places where rats scurry behind kitchens and dishes are washed next to drains, as long as the food served is supposedly delicious.

As for our popular pasar malam, most have no proper bins.

The piles of waste left behind are usually swept into plastic bags and conveniently tossed into drains or rivers.

Already, most rivers in the peninsula have ended up as flowing garbage dumps, with as much as 300,000 tonnes of junk thrown into them every year.

That’s about the total weight of the country’s annual production of durians.

While the common pollutants are household rubbish, construction waste, oil, grease, organic and industrial wastes, the Drainage and Irrigation Department has found bulk items like refrigerators and mattresses clogging up rivers as well.

With the dry spell drastically reducing levels in rivers, more contamination means less water being channelled into treatment plants, compounding the water shortage.

The crisis might just get worse with the possibility of El Niño, or prolonged warming in the Pacific Ocean, happening later this year.

Weather experts predict that there would be less rainfall until the end of the south-west monsoon in early October.

To give an idea of how awful river pollution has become in the peninsula, five waterways have already been classified as “dead”.

The rivers that are no longer able to sustain any form of life are Sg Segget and Sg Ayer Merah (Johor), Sg Jelutong, Sg Juru and Sg Prai (Penang).

Four others have been identified as the most polluted because of the amount of garbage being dumped into them – Sg Klang (Klang Valley), Sg Tebrau, Sg Skudai (Johor) and Sg Pinang (Penang).

At the current rate that garbage is being churned out and chucked into rivers, the country is slowly but surely headed towards an environmental disaster.

It’s tragic that the “couldn’t care less” attitude is prevalent, along with the general disregard for the environment.

Perhaps we should learn from Malaysians in Sabah and Sarawak who seem to have better respect for their rivers.

According to Drainage and Irrigation Department’s river basin and coastal management division director Datuk Lim Chow Hock, the rivers in the two states are cleaner because the people there do not discard rubbish into them wantonly.

As for recycling of waste, in spite of all the money spent over the years on educating Malaysians, those who practise it are few and far between to make a difference.

Currently, only a dismal 10% of Malaysians bother to sort out their rubbish for recycling.

And so, with very little space left for landfills, what do we do about the growing piles of garbage, besides spending more and more money on cleaning up rivers?

Burning it up doesn’t seem like an easy option.

The Government’s plan to build incinerators in Kepong, Kuala Lumpur, Bukit Payung in Johor, Sendayan in Negri Sembilan and Sungai Udang in Malacca has not gone down well.

We can’t blame people for opposing the projects, especially after pertinent questions were raised in the 2012 Auditor-General’s report about existing incinerators on the islands of Langkawi, Pangkor, Tioman and Labuan and another in Cameron Highlands.

It said the incinerators were poorly managed, highlighting design flaws and the shortage of experts to manage the facilities.

The report also noted that the incinerators did not comply with laws such as the Occupational Safety and Health Act and the Factories and Machineries Act.

More so, the release of toxic, cancer-causing materials and gases remains a major concern.

While the Urban Wellbeing, Housing and Local Government Ministry sorts those things out, can we just go back to the basics of enforcement?

All local governments have laws to punish littering and the indiscriminate disposal of garbage.

It’s a shame, though, that there seems to be no political will to strictly enforce them.

> Associate editor M. Veera Pandiyan likes this quote by satirist P J O’Rourke: Cleanliness becomes more important when godliness is unlikely.

> The views expressed are entirely the writer's own.

Tags / Keywords: Opinion, Veera Pandiyan

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