Waste Management in Malaysia: In the Dumps
Malaysians produce an average of 30,000 tons of waste every day. Only 5 percent of it is recycled.
These two statistics were recently revealed by the national Ministry of Urban Wellbeing, Housing and Local Government, and they’re causing enormous problems for Malaysia. The country’s buildup of solid waste is resulting in tremendous land and air pollution for the environment, health problems for communities and bottlenecks to economic growth. Taken together, the problem of poor waste management in Malaysia is one of the nation’s biggest issues to date.
For years, local and national governments have been trying to curb the flow of garbage onto sidewalks, into landfills, over hillsides and through rivers, but Malaysia’s turbulent pace of change has made that process extremely difficult.
Thanks to population increase, consumption and disposal rates are escalating faster than Malaysia’s utilities can handle. Over the 10 years from 2003 to 2013, the generation of municipal solid waste (MSW) in Malaysia increased more than 91 percent. Urban development is largely responsible, the country’s city-dwellers (at 65 percent of the total population) being the biggest contributors to waste. Combine this with a metropolitan culture that loves to buy and toss – and an infamously poor public understanding of resource conservation and recycling – and Malaysia has quite a bit of garbage to deal with.
As a result, most of it is going into landfills. In 2013, about 42 percent of all MSW in Malaysia was incinerated. Two percent was recycled, leaving the remaining 56 percent to be dumped.
Open-Air Landfills and Illegal Dumping
The vast majority of landfills in Malaysia are open-air pits. This quick and dirty method is cheap, but fantastically rough on the environment. Among the probmels inherent to open-are landfills are surface and groundwater contamination through leaching, soil contamination through direct contact, air pollution through garbage burning (intentional or not), disease spread through birds, insects and rodents, uncontrolled release of greenhouse gases and of course, a very unpleasant odor.
As harmful as open-air landfills can be, they are much preferable to uncontrolled dumping, another big issue for waste management in Malaysia. Only about 66 percent of rural area populations are covered by garbage services, so a lot of trash ends up strewn over the countryside. Giant piles of illegally dumped garbage in the Cameron Islands have been spilling into rivers for years, rendering some of them unsuitable for any use at all – even after treatment. These piles have recently begun to smolder from within, melting down hillsides and oozing toxic waste into the soil and water that local communities depend upon for farming, fishing, and sometimes drinking water.
Dump site in the Cameron Highlands via The Star
A Throwaway Culture
A big reason for the waste problem in Malaysia is that its people are facing a profound lack of public awareness and environmental education. The ignorance isn’t for lack of trying – since about 1988, years of awareness programs, public forums, and (quite spendy) corporate responsibility initiatives have failed to make a difference due to poor public response. There are pockets of strong support for recycling and inspired individuals campaigning for sustainability, but it would appear the predominant take on conservation and recycling in Malaysia is apathetic.
Trash in a Kuala Lumpur river by Kounosu via Wikimedia Commons
One example of this is a 2001 campaign in which the Penang State government tried to encourage residents to recycle at least one percent of the waste they created each day. Recycling bins were provided, but were misused, and the ones utilized were found to contain 40-60 percent non-recyclable items.
The possibilities for recycling in Malaysia are huge, but at present they aren’t being taken advantage of. Over half of Malaysian trash is recyclable (and the rest is compostable), but landfills cater to about 95 percent of it. Of these landfills, 85 percent have reached full capacity and are expected to be shut down in the next few years. To make matters worse, building new landfills in Malaysia is becoming increasingly difficult as available land dwindles and communities refuse permits. If things don’t change, Malaysia will be staring down a problem that could negate decades of progress towards sustainable development.
A New Policy for Waste Management in Malaysia
Malaysian authority has been left with one option – mandatory recycling with fines for noncompliance. Programs that handed out recycling bins and hoped for the best have been started and stopped since 2007 but, due to public ignorance and disinterest, have met with utter failure. Despite this fact, the government has rallied once more. This time, it appears to be quite serious about recycling in Malaysia
The most recent iteration of mandatory recycling in Malaysia has just been put into full effect. Called the Mandatory Waste Separation Program, the legal Act focuses on getting Malaysians to separate recyclables from garbage – the collectors will do the rest.
The rules are simple: sort your garbage into different bags, and you won’t be fined. Paper goes in a blue bag, plastic in a white, and glass, aluminum and electronics in green. Leftover household waste is to be bagged and put into bins provided by the garbage companies. If those rules aren’t followed, a fine of RM1,000 ($230) will be cited. The fine will be mandated until January 1, 2016, and the recycling has been mandatory since September 1.
According to Urban Wellbeing, Housing and Local Government Minister Datuk Abdul Rahman Dahlan, the public has been exhaustively briefed on the program.
“I’m sure that with the various campaigns being held, the public will be well informed that the process to separate household solid waste is easy and uncomplicated,” he said in July.
Rahman announced during the same event that the separation program could reduce the amount of solid waste sent to landfills by 40 percent. A recovery like this is something Malaysia needs.
The hope is that, short of educational programs, the public will react to fines. The fact that there has been poor public uptake on water conservation education programs as well supports the idea that monetary penalty may be the ticket to inspiring sustainability in the public. Reports of the waste separation program’s success are still forthcoming. Soon, the country’s very future will depend on positive reaction to programs like this.