Since the Sg Kim Kim crisis broke and sickened almost 4,000 people with noxious fumes in Pasir Gudang, Johor, in March, Malaysians seem to have woken up to a new reality about waste.
It’s not just the river that runs through the maze of factories in the industrial area that is a dumpsite for tonnes of toxic chemicals; pretty much all of Malaysia has become a dumping ground for all sorts of wastes.
The media is littered with reports of illegal dumping, whether of plastic, chemical or construction waste, e-waste or even plain old rubbish.
One only has to go to illegal landfills in towns like Jengjarom, Kulim and Sg Petani to see the severity of the problem – and pictures of the mounds of trash in these small towns in Selangor and Kedah have made their way to international media.
How did it come to this?
The scandal of plastic waste being dumped by First World nations in Malaysia and other developing countries dramatically grabbed world headlines earlier this year. However, it overshadows the fact that we Malaysians have been dumping our own waste into drains, rivers, empty plots of land, the sea or even other people’s backyards for decades – and getting away with it too, according to experts.
Like the pollution that continues to brew in Pasir Gudang, the ill consequences of dumping waste indiscriminately all these years are catching up to us.
This isn’t to say that Malaysia lacks laws; we enacted the Environmental Quality Act all the way back in 1974, and it’s being amended with heftier penalties of up to RM5mil in some pollution cases. But Malaysians continue to dump indiscriminately. Why?
Cheaper To Dump Than Recycle
An expert in solid and hazardous waste management at Universiti Malaya’s Science Faculty, Prof Dr P. Agamuthu, says a combination of reasons leads to dumping.
“Some (types of) wastes are expensive to recycle or there is no technology for recycling it, especially chemical waste. As for construction waste, it is bulky and costly to throw into a landfill and, hence, the easy way (out) is to dump illegally,” he says at a recent interview.
Similarly, cost is also one of the reasons why foreign waste has been arriving on our shores in increasing amounts. The Asian Nikkei Review reported that disposing of plastic bottles in China cost around US$200 (RM822) compared with US$500 (RM2,000) in developed economies.
It is simply cheaper to send plastic waste to developing countries than process it within, for example, the United States, according to Prof Agamuthu.
This is why countries like Japan, the United States and Germany, as well as the rest of the European Union, which supposedly have better technology, send plastic waste thousands of kilometres away by ship to be dumped into Third World landfills. (See graphic below, right.)
And then there’s the problem of exposing workers in developed countries to health risks from recycling processes – Asian lives have always been cheaper.
Another reason for the dumping is these countries’ small market for recycled plastics; by law, recycled plastics cannot be used to manufacture medical equipment or food containers. What’s more, oil’s current low price means that it’s often cheaper to produce virgin plastics than to recycle.
Ultimately, only 9% of the 4.9 billion tonnes of plastic produced since the 1950s has been recycled, according to a study by the University of California, Santa Barbara; 12% has been incinerated.
So while recycling rates are often trumpeted in developed countries, with citizens faithfully sorting their household waste, much of it ends up being dumped cheaply somewhere far away.
Previously, that far away place was usually China, the world’s largest importer of waste. But it banned such imports in early 2018, upending the recycling business.
And it is very much a business. According to investigative reports by environmental groups, there are even waste “tourists” – people from developing countries who travel to the West to buy waste, particularly e-waste, that can be stripped of valuable metals.
Then there are those who make money by getting paid to import waste to dispose of in their own countries, including Malaysia. After China stepped out of the business, some 110,000 tonnes of waste reportedly began to be channelled here every month.
“We do not have the capacity to deal with this sudden increase. In Malaysia, recycling is in a low state and additional waste will not be easy to handle,” points out Prof Agamuthu.
Waste Management Association chairman Ho De Leong agrees: “Plastic scraps can be highly contaminated with other undesirable waste, which local facilities are ill equipped to handle.”
Of course, since recycling or proper disposal in landfills is expensive, these importers then turn around and simply dump waste illegally, leading to Jengjarom, Kulim and Sg Petani-type situations.
No More Room
The thing is, the illegal dumping of waste – whether imported or local – and the toxins emitted during indiscriminate burning aren’t our only problems.
Even waste that is correctly disposed of in landfills is becoming an issue now because Malaysia’s landfills – the legal, properly managed ones, anyway – are already nearly full, laments Prof Agamuthu.
We simply generate too much waste ourselves, while the imported waste just exacerbates problem.
Ho, whose association has over 200 members, says waste generation in Malaysian has more than doubled in a span of fewer than 15 years. He puts this down to what he calls the “Bata” (buy and throw away, not the shoe brand) culture that has evolved as we grow richer and more developed.
“Recent studies show that 11% of the (38,000 tonnes of) waste generated in Malaysia daily comprises diapers alone. Imagine, more than 4,000 tonnes of diapers generated and thrown away daily!” he says, recalling the less wasteful ways of the previous generation when cloth diapers would be washed and re-used for babies, and drinks came in glass bottles that were collected back by retailers.
“We throw trash out without giving it much thought, so long as it gets collected by the garbage collectors.
“Where does the trash go? Landfills? Malaysia only has a handful of landfills which are classified as sanitary. Less than 15% of the 146 active landfills are sanitary,” says Ho.
The rest, he says, are dumpsites with little or no treatment for leachate or the capture and destruction of landfill gas which is 50% methane (a greenhouse gas); they don’t even have a soil cover to prevent odour and disease vectors like rats and flies. And these sorts of landfills catch fire due to the methane gas, especially during hot weather, Ho says.
“Many of these dumpsites have been closed and the rest have a remaining lifespan of between three months and three years.
“New landfills are not welcomed by the public due to the Nimby (Not In My Back Yard) syndrome as well as the problems associated with foul odours and flies,” says Ho.
It doesn’t help matters that tipping, or waste disposal fees, have remained unchanged: they are as low as RM10 for dumpsites and RM40 per tonne at sanitary landfills.
The ‘Tidak Apa’ Attitude
While the recycling rate across the country has gone up to 24.6% last year from 21.% in 2017, this is still far below world leader Germany where the rate is between 52% and 56%. In fact, a recent YouGov poll showed that Malaysians continue to lap up plastic straws: one in five respondents used at least one daily and one in 10 admitted to using straws several times a day.
But increasing the recycling rate isn’t enough. The country, stresses Ho, urgently needs proper waste treatment facilities and infrastructure.
Infrastructure would include everything from the collection of waste from bins to collection vehicles or compactors, transfer stations, material recovery facilities or recycling plants, composting plants, anaerobic digestors, waste-to-energy plants and sanitary landfills,” he says.
Waste management infrastructure and its maintenance, he says, is just as important as any other basic public amenity and an appropriate budget has to be set aside for it.
“Appropriate policies and regulations must be established to facilitate the development of sound waste management practices,” he says, adding that there must be incentives support recycling and it should be sustainable.
Sustainability is key, as Pasir Gudang, where rivers have borne the effects of both dumping and pollution for years, has been finding out.
The waters of Sg Kim Kim, along with those of Sg Rekoh, Sg Tengkorak and Sg Danga nearby, run black, and social media was swamped with pictures of them during the recent wave of pollution in June.
The 360sq km industrial area is so “jam packed” with factories, as water quality expert Dr Zaki Zainudin describes it, that any discharge of chemical effluent, even within legal limits, will add to the pollution that already taints the rivers.
And that hasn’t even taken into account the illegal dumping – which Sg Kim Kim is notorious for – that continues and will continue to recur.
Would an Environmental Quality Act beefed up with new amendments deter illegal dumping?
To some extent, replies Dr Zaki.
“But that will not resolve the problem entirely. At the end of the day, a sense of responsibility and environmental awareness is also important.
“You want to enforce, (you) must have people to enforce (but) they cannot be on site 24 hours a day, every day,” he points out.
Dr Zaki says it would be difficult for the Department of Environment to monitor all the chemical factories in Pasir Gudang, which a recent count put at 252 chemical factories among the over 2,000 – legal – premises in the district.
“In the long run, as in the developed countries, a sense of environmental awareness is key,” he says.
He feels that Malaysians tended to be lackadaisical about cleanliness, particularly if an area or a river is already considered polluted or dirty.
“If the river is already dirty, (there is a) just throw-lah attitude. People don’t take care of a dirty river,” he says.
Would rehabilitating dirty rivers change this mindset?
Dr Zaki warns rather ominously: “It’s very difficult to clean up rivers.”
Prof Agamuthu thinks any solution to Malaysia’s waste problem must include serious efforts by the government to educate the public about waste separation at source, ie, starting within the kitchen.
“The implementation of provisions under the Solid Waste Act to introduce fines for not separating at source have to be imposed effectively,” he adds, admitting however that a lack of incentives is a major hurdle.
Ho says a lack of environmental consciousness coupled with weaknesses in enforcement has led to a “tidak apa” (uncaring) culture among Malaysians when it comes to dumping.
“I believe a myriad factors, from human behaviour to greed and a sheer disregard for Mother Nature, have contributed to the poisoning of our water courses and environment,” he says.
Dr Zaki, however, has not given up hope, pointing to the public’s reaction to the recent incidents of pollution.
“There’s a heightened sense of the environment compared to previously,” he says.
But how fast will that awareness lead to a change in our behaviour?
“The nation will become one big dumpsite if we continue with business as usual, ignoring the urgency and importance of sound waste management,” warns Ho.