IN December last year, Housing and Local Government Minister Datuk Seri Reezal Merican Naina Merican announced that the country’s national recycling rate (NRR) had risen to 31.52% in 2021 from 30.7% in 2020.
At this rate, it will hover around 35% by 2025. This is disappointing because this ministry had previously set a NRR target of 40% by 2025, and national recycling programmes had started in 1993.
There are various barriers to achieving the 40% NRR by 2025. One is lack of guidance for consumers on how to recycle or dispose of goods as well as packaging, which form a huge bulk of solid waste.
Most consumer goods and packaging are made of a combination of recyclable and non-recyclable parts. Take the instant noodle cup as an example. It comprises aluminium, which is used to cover the cup and store the seasoning, rigid plastic (cup and spoon), and paper (bearing the label and product information). Most people assume the aluminium can be recycled, but it cannot. The plastic cup and spoon must also be cleaned properly before they can be sent for recycling.
Another example is the empty tissue box. Most tissue boxes have a transparent plastic flap. This needs to be removed before the box can be recycled.
Businesses can mislead even the most environmental-conscious consumers to think they are consuming responsibly. One example of this is the use of paper cups and plates, which is very popular in fast-food chains.
About 20 years ago, these outlets used reusable plates and cups for their dine-in consumers. These days, paper plates and cups are the order of the day. Even high-end coffee chains have replaced their reusable mugs with disposable cups.
Most people feel good when they throw these paper cups and plates into recycling bins. Unknown to them, the inner part of paper plates and cups are coated with plastic that cannot be recycled.
Manufacturers are also introducing extra internal packaging in their products. One such example are biscuits and crackers. In the past, one would take the biscuits directly after opening the main packaging. These days, the biscuits are packed into smaller sized- packets within the main packaging. Worse still, the packaging may also be fitted with transparent plastic trays to hold the small packets.
This shows that even though 31.52% of waste is sent to recycling centres, if they are not separated properly at source, not all will actually be recycled. Certain non-recyclable plastics can also damage recycling equipment.
To improve recycling at source, the government must introduce a recycling guide label in both Bahasa Malaysia and English to provide clear instructions on how to separate, recycle, and dispose of waste.
The government must also make it a rule for businesses to provide higher disclosure to consumers about the waste impact of their products.
With the recycling guide label in place, Malaysia could achieve a NRR of 50% by 2025.
(The writer is a human rights activist, environmentalist and infrastructure policy analyst.)