Waste not, dump not

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Pakatan state governments must look at alternative options for solid waste management that build on public participation, writes Ong Eu Soon.

In July 2007, the Solid Waste and Public Cleansing Management Bill 2007 and the Solid Waste and Public Management Corporation Bill 2007 were passed by the Parliament.

Consequential amendments were also made to three other related Bills and were passed.

They were the Local Government (Amendment) Bill; the Street, Drainage and Building (Amendment) Bill; and the Town and Country Planning (Amendment) Bill.

The Bills will result in the setting-up of a National Solid Waste Management Department as the regulatory body and the Solid Waste Management Corporation to take over the role of managing solid waste from the local authorities.

In the name of recycling, reducing and reusing, the Bill was passed. Without it, the waste concessionaires now sign yearly contracts with individual local authorities to collect and dispose of rubbish and face the difficulty of collecting payment for their services. With the passing of the Bills, the people will be made to pay for the garbage collection service.

The Bills were formulated after the plan to privatise the solid waste management turned sour in the northern region, with Northern Waste Management backing out and Environment Idaman, tasked by the Housing and Local Government Ministry with handling solid waste in Penang, Perak, Perlis and Kedah, complaining that it was unable to take over the job from many councils.

Viable options

Landfills have traditionally been the predominant and principal method of waste disposal in Malaysia. A sanitary landfill site is a waste disposal facility in which waste is deposited into the ground and covered. As part of the country waste management strategy, the federal government aspires to develop properly engineered sanitary landfills to replace traditional facilities.

Are landfills a viable option for solid waste management? The folly of past practice has revealed that even well managed sanitary landfills lacked subsurface barriers to prevent toxic substances ?perhaps from discarded materials such as household cleaning agents, used automobile batteries, waste oils and solvents ?from leaching into water supplies. Moisture seeping through the ground also caused metal drums and barrels to rust and leak, eventually releasing their toxic contents.

Rapid development and the lack of space for new landfills make acquisition of large land areas a time consuming and difficult proposition, always ending up with protests from the public. If the locations of landfills are located farther from the municipal areas, there will be high haulage costs. Furthermore, landfill gas emissions, resulting from the degradation of biodegradable waste, pose another problem. How is the landfill operator going to collect and combust the gas to destroy the toxics? All these require hefty investment, which local governments can ill afford.

Although the Cabinet in 2005 endorsed the Nation Strategic Plan, which outlined an integrated and holistic approach to waste management, this is what the federal government and the concessionaires delivered to us.

According to The Star (21 March 2006), the concessionaires say sorting out our dump-site woes will require the closure of existing old dumps, their replacement with a few large engineered landfills and backing that up with a network of waste transfer stations. At the transfer stations, recyclables will be recovered and the waste compacted for easier transportation to the landfills.

These ideas are contained in their master plans. Southern Waste Management (SWM), for instance, plans to build three engineered landfills in Johor and one each in Malacca and Negri Sembilan over the next 20 years.

Alam Flora strategy for the Klang Valley includes two landfills, an incinerator and nine waste transfer stations. For Pahang, it is planning landfills in Kuantan, Temerloh and Bentong, and an incinerator in Cameron Highlands.

The group had 62 landfills under its concessionaire areas in Selangor, Kuala Lumpur and Pahang in 1996 but now operates only 18. It did not take over the Kajang, Klang, Hulu Selangor, Ampang and Cameron Highland landfills as well as those in Kelantan and Terengganu.

Landfilling has been a convenient and relatively low-cost method of getting rid of unwanted materials. But the convenience can no longer be justified as landfill space becomes scarce and as hauling and disposal costs skyrocket.

Sanitary landfills should not be the one and only option in solid waste management. It is not an efficient way of waste recovery. The present waste recovery rate of 3 per cent does not augur well for the federal government to concentrate its effort on building sanitary landfills while ignoring other sustainable options such as source reduction, recycling and composting in dealing with solid waste management.

Public participation

For waste recovery and recycling to be successful, pre-sorting of the components of waste is a necessity and this requires active public participation. Under the ruling BN government, public participation is discouraged, making participatory waste management impossible to be implement. In connection with this, corruption emerges as a serious problem at all levels of local governments.

A new policy approach should be adopted to instil a sense of common responsibility towards waste, and to create overall strategies for waste management that do more than pay mere lip service to the concept of sustainability.

Options such as vermiculture and recycling, which have the minimum economic cost and environmental impact and are socially acceptable, should be encouraged on a voluntary basis, through government incentives in the form of financial or other support.

Community-based waste management projects that emphasise a participatory approach are viable alternatives to cope with severely inadequate municipal waste services. They will also will increase the lifespan of our landfills by diverting and reducing what is put into it.

Under the initiative, marginal groups or families should be encouraged, trained, and financed to take up Vermiculture.

Vermiculture appears to be an innovative sustainable technology for waste treatment, which holds a promising future in solid waste management. It is a technology that is easy to implement, has low risk with a high return of investment.

The core activity taken up in this initiative is based on the sustainable use of biodiversity. In this activity the organic waste is converted into effective bio fertiliser or vermi compost. The only asset involved is the earthworm, which gets doubled as the days pass. The operator of vermiculture earns by selling them and the compost. This initiative is easily replicable and is financially self-sustainable in the long term.

In fulfilling the promises of their election manifesto, the Pakatan Rakyat state governments should explore the transformative potential of such strategies to enhance service delivery and local democracy through empowering the most marginalised.

The following are pertinent factors that the Pakatan Rakyat state governments should take into consideration when planning for solid waste management:

  • With centralised privatisation of solid waste management, the potential of BN hatching a scheme to sabotage waste collection to make the Pakatan Rakyat state governments look stupid and inept cannot be ignored, considering what has happened in Klang.
  • Either the people or the local authorities will continue to pay exorbitant bills for waste collection.
  • How to address the emergence of environmental issues resulting from landfills.
  • Landfill site identification has the tendency to generate controversy and social protest.

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