THE toxic waste pollution incident at Pasir Gudang, Johor is unfortunate because while we are, as a country, already on the verge of becoming a fully developed nation, we still have such irresponsible practices of indiscriminate disposal of hazardous wastes.
How can we prevent such incidents from happening again? How can we put a stop to such despicable acts by unscrupulous people?
According to media reports, the incident at Pasir Gudang is not an isolated case as many other rivers throughout the country have been polluted by toxic chemicals from rubbish dumps and landfills. The reality is we do not look after our rubbish dumps well enough. Most are not designed as proper landfills. They are supposed to be sanitary landfills where gases and leachates are properly collected and treated before they are released into the environment.
Landfills would normally generate biogas as a result of microbial action and leach out polluted water. In a poorly designed landfill, otherwise also known as rubbish dump, the gases which are mainly made up of methane would contaminate the air and produce foul smells. At the same time, the polluted water would be leached into the ground, contaminating it with all kinds of toxic muck. It gets worse if hazardous wastes are also dumped at the site.
The necessary laws and regulations have been enacted to manage such hazardous wastes, which are also referred to as scheduled wastes. The Department of Environment (DOE) has been empowered to enforce such laws. For example, all scheduled wastes are supposed to be sent to a special treatment facility in Negri Sembilan which is designed to handle and treat them. There is a cost involved, and that is why many unscrupulous owners of companies choose not to send their hazardous wastes to the facility. They don’t care about the costs to the country and the people when such wastes are disposed in dump sites that are not designed to treat scheduled wastes.
As we enter an era of depleting natural resources and sophisticated manufacturing, there is an inevitable increase in the use of new chemicals, mostly the synthetic forms. Most are hazardous to human health and the environment and therefore require careful handling not only when using them but also when disposing of the by-products.
Unfortunately, as a nation we are generally still behind in terms of dealing with wastes. Look at the rampant practice of throwing away plastic bags without due care for the potential environmental consequences. I am afraid this is not just a disease of the less educated. Many highly-educated Malaysians are also known to throw their rubbish indiscriminately. Cases of rubbish being thrown out of the windows of expensive luxury cars are not uncommon.
Of course, it gets more dangerous when the rubbish is the hazardous kind.
It is not easy to change the habits of people. It may take a generation if we start imbibing such culture among the young. The other option is to use technology. We need to keep track of all hazardous materials in industries. These include hazardous materials used in the manufacturing sector as well as the toxic wastes that need to be disposed.
Nowadays, there is a growing recognition of blockchain technology as a way to reduce the misreporting and even abusive practices especially in finance and the related sectors.
It is about improving accountability and transparency. The technology is now being evaluated to keep track of the halal industry. There is no reason why blockchain cannot also be deployed to keep track of hazardous materials.
PROFESSOR DATUK DR AHMAD IBRAHIM
Fellow, Asean Academy of Engineering and Technology