Tech-forward waste transformation

Shoes are among items that can be recovered from recycling facilities to be sold as used goods.

HOW much refuse do we Malaysians produce every day?

Whatever the amount may be, environmentalists want us to be mindful of the impact we are creating in our surroundings.

We need to think if we can refrain from generating unnecessary waste which goes into landfills that are already bursting at the seams.

While many people think recycling campaigns were unearthed in the 1990s, it in fact started thousands of years ago and gained momentum around the world since the 1970s until today.

Environmental activists urge the public to ponder over what we consume, besides carrying out waste separation properly and embracing technology to transform waste into wealth.

In general, Malaysians have come under heavy criticism for not separating our waste and allowing it to turn into commingled rubbish that cannot be recycled.

These points were highlighted at a Waste Summit in Petaling Jaya themed “Frontier Technologies as an Innovative Tool to Transform Waste to Wealth.”

The forum also stressed the importance of responsible consumption and production.

Universiti Malaya Institute of Ocean and Earth Sciences (IOES) director Professor Dr Sumiani Yusoff said responsible consumption and production were among the United Nations’ most important Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) for environmental protection.

“Everything you create, buy and use somehow goes back to the environment.

“Now, we must practise refuse, reduce, reuse, repurpose, recycle and rot.

“We have the option to refuse items that are not sustainable for the environment. And the producers of these items also have a role to play, ” said Prof Sumiani, pointing out that 90% of Malaysia’s waste went into the landfills.

She noted that the country had 171 landfills but only 18 were sanitary landfills, therefore stressing that waste separation at the source was a must.

However, she said, the present waste concessionaire business model did not support this.

“As long as the concessionaire’s business model does not change, they will be less inclined to separate the waste.

“Currently, they are paid by the weight of rubbish disposed of at the landfills, so the more trash they collect, the more they get paid.

“I do not see how this will encourage them to be actively involved in recycling, ” said Prof Sumiani.

She encouraged Malaysians to adopt behavioural changes such as refraining from preparing too much food, reducing food intake and throwing away less food.

UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) estimates that 1.3 billion tonnes of food is wasted globally every year, and Malaysians are guilty of this too.

Prof Sumiani said 24-hour restaurants were partly compounding people’s overeating habits, which resulted in poor health and added waste contribution.

She said Malaysian food waste was commonly wet due to the fact that we mostly consumed curry and gravy-based food.

“Food waste emits methane that leads to the greenhouse effect linked to climate change, ” she explained.

She also pointed out that leachate in unsanitary landfills flowed into the ground and ultimately led to water contamination.

As for commingled waste, she said it had no value because different types of waste lumped together could not be recycled.

“The best is to compost your food waste and separate your other dry waste, ” she added.

Tech frontiers Prof Sumiani shared the four technology-forward frontiers that could be applied to transform waste into wealth.

They are nutrient recovery from biological treatment, energy recovery from thermal treatment, material recovery through recycling and energy recovery from landfills (refer to chart).

The biological methods consist of anaerobic digestion where the waste can be converted to fertiliser and energy.

Vermiculture using worms, on the other hand, turns waste into vermicompost.

As for thermal treatment, it consists of the incineration process, pyrolysis process that turns waste into gas, oil and feedstock, and the gasification process that converts waste into electricity, steam and diesel fuel.

Environment waste management specialist Dr Theng Lee Chong opined that waste could be seen as either a source of revenue or expenditure.

”Waste has both environmental damages and degradation cost attached to it.

”Plastics, metal, industrial e-waste, green waste and paper may have benefits in terms of recycling, but items such as used batteries, used diapers, household e-waste, fluorescent lamps and other non-recyclables are negative waste that come with a high price to recycle them.

“This is why government intervention is important, ” he said.

He said Malaysia might be too focused on plastic waste when there were other forms of waste that had fallen below the radar, such as fluorescent lamps and cigarette butts, adding that there was apathy in ideas on how to turn waste into profit.

Petaling Jaya mayor Datuk Mohd Sayuthi Bakar said in conjunction with PJ Waste Summit 2019, the council signed a memorandum of understanding with KPJ Damansara Specialist Hospital for a food waste composting project.

“The hospital is composting its food waste using the anaerobic digester technology, a good model for on-site disposal system, ” he said, adding that the composting system was part of the Petaling Jaya Sustainable Strategic Plan 2030 to address the city council’s waste management policies.

Last year, Petaling Jaya City Council spent RM85mil on waste collection and cleaning.

Fees to dispose waste at the landfills amounted to RM12mil.

Sayuthi said robotics, automation, electric vehicles, reusable energy, biotechnology and artificial intelligence were among the technologies that could be used to make waste profitable.

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