Sorting through a messy issue

LAST week Housing and Local Government Minister Datuk Seri Chor Chee Heung announced that the Solid Waste and Public Cleansing Management Corporation is looking at suitable locations and systems for waste disposal management in Malaysia.

Two key pieces of legislation in this area are the Solid Waste and Public Cleansing Management Act 2007 (Act 672) and Solid Waste and Public Cleansing Management Corporation Act 2007 (Act 673), both of which are excellent pieces of legislation which provide the framework for more green and sustainable ways of waste management.

The process of using refuse dumped in landfills and converting it into fuel is one way Malaysia can treat waste in a more eco-friendly way. This process would typically involve the use of Biogas Plants to convert the waste into a type of bio fuel which can then be fed into the national energy grid.

Biogas plants use the process of anaerobic digestion, or fermentation, of biodegradable materials such as biomass, manure, sewage, municipal waste, green waste, plant material, and crops and convert them to biogas fuels like methane (CH4) and carbon dioxide (CO2) with small amounts of hydrogen sulphide (H2S), moisture and siloxanes.

As far as I know, a biogas plant exists in Apas Balung, Sabah. The palm oil industry is also looking at biogas as a way to boost revenue with the electricity generated from the production. However, neither of these are a local council, instead they are private companies which have invested in the process as a business decision.

The costs of infrastructure for feeding the power into the grid are not expensive, but setting up an efficient biogas plant can cost up to RM35mil. In Malaysia, the Green Technology Funding System is meant to provide a source of funding for such exercises.

While researching the subject, I came across a blog, The Salmon’s Struggle, which talked about some of the challenges faced in the waste management industry to set up green waste management systems. In particular, the author wrote that the dipping fee the government is willing to pay in Malaysia to subsidise this process is way below European standards — 90 (RM280) in the newer European Union member countries like Czechoslovakia and Poland and 130 (RM520) per tonne in more established economies like England, France, Germany compared to RM 20 to RM30 per tonne in Malaysia.

I was wondering why this was so? Evidently, the dipping fee plays a role in making the whole waste management process more affordable and also provides a form of subsidy for a process which would otherwise take a longer time to get embedded into the system.

In Europe, this subsidy is obtained from taxes the people pay for garbage collection — a concept which is relatively new in Malaysia.

I recall in Ireland, house waste is separated into a few different bins, some of which you had to pay a dipping fee to the local council and other you didn’t.

There was the green bin for recyclables like paper and aluminium cans, the brown organic bin for organic kitchen and household refuse, a communal drop off point for glass and a black bin for everything else.

The black bin collection was subject to a dipping fee but in Ireland, everything else wasn’t. People were thus given an incentive to separate their household waste.

Another noticeable difference was that toxic waste like energy-saving lightbulbs and batteries have to be dumped at a special dump which the public have to pay to access. I have lost count of the number of batteries which get thrown into my household bins and wonder about the toxic effect of them every time I do.

I suppose the burning question is, should Malaysians start paying for garbage disposal according to how many pick-ups are needed as it exists in Europe?

Landfills are a murky territory altogether where toxic waste is an issue with items like said batteries the biggest culprit.

The reality is waste has to be separated into recyclables and non-recyclables before it can be fed into a biogas plant. However, batteries can remain as part of the material which is fed into the biogas plant.

The composted rubbish that comes out can then be filtered before being used as fertiliser for the likes of golf courses and palm oil plantations. The fact that battery acid is still part of this fertiliser still makes it somewhat toxic and therefore unsuitable for the likes of say, vegetable farms. The other option is to bury it in designated toxic waste dumps in the country. The final option is battery recycling, but by all industry accounts, it is not a profitable recycling business.

The question then is do Malaysians separate the garbage themselves like the Europeans or do we just dump everything in one bin which can then be fed into a separation plant? The separation plant can separate waste into recyclable and non-recyclable waste and treat them accordingly.

Which brings us neatly back to the thorny issue of landfills. As the Minister noted last week, we can’t keep opening up landfills in Malaysia. With the rapid pace of urbanisation in the country, it seems necessary for us to look at the options available to us for a more sustainable waste management system.




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