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Malaysia Versus Waste

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Dr Eleni Iacovidou is Lecturer in Environmental Management at the Department of Life Sciences, Brunel University London. Dr Kok Siew Ng is a UKRI/NERC Industrial Innovation (Rutherford) Research Fellow at the Department of Engineering Science, University of Oxford

First published in The Chemical Engineer, Jul/Aug 2020, issue 949/50 | Read the original article

Malaysia is on track to miss its 2020 targets to divert 40% of waste from landfill and increase recycling rates to 22%. According to the most recent stats available, almost 90% of waste was reportedly disposed to sanitary landfills, while only 10.5% was recycled1. These targets were set out as far back as August 2005 in Malaysia’s National Strategic Plan (NSP) for Solid Waste Management.

So what has gone wrong? And what needs to be done to catalyse green progress? To gain some insight, we spoke to policy-makers and waste management authorities in Malaysia to try to get to the bottom of the problem.

According to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government in Malaysia, around RM430m (US$100m) has been spent on closing just 17 out of 165 existing dumpsites, and promoting the disposal of solid waste to sanitary landfill. At present, landfill seems to be the preferred solid waste management option for Malaysia, as waste infrastructure is ill-developed. Local authorities responsible for the management of solid waste are outsourcing the collection and disposal of solid waste to private companies. The National Solid Waste Management Department (abbreviated as JPSPN in Malay) told us that companies contracted by the local authorities to collect and dispose of municipal solid waste (MSW) often illegally collect commercial and industrial waste alongside MSW in order to increase their load and trips to landfill – to claim more money from the authorities. As a result, government has considered increasing landfill gate fees, but the fear of incentivising illegal dumping and fly-tipping has halted these plans.

Malaysia is reportedly generating an immense amount of Municipal Solid waste, around 33,000 t/d, which is equivalent to 1.17 kg/person per day

Rapid urbanisation coupled with improvements in living standards associated with increased consumption of goods2 exacerbate solid waste management problems faced by the Malaysian Government. Malaysia is reportedly generating an immense amount of MSW, around 33,000 t/d, which is equivalent to 1.17 kg/person per day3. Added to that there is import of foreign waste – a considerable amount of which is plastic waste. This is imported either legally (estimated around 873 kt in 20184) or illegally (based on private conversations with authorities this is estimated to be around 500 kt in 2018).

According to Malaysian state officials, in 2018 more than 250 shipping containers of plastic waste were imported illegally to Malaysia from many countries, including the UK. These were allegedly claimed to have been shipped back to their counties of origin, but the reality is that this is challenging once the containers have passed custom controls. This situation has alarmed the government, which is expected to look to increase public awareness, tighten the control of imported foreign waste, close down illegal plastic recycling factories, and promote sustainable solid waste management.

Current practice

Setting the foreign waste aside, the overall recycling rate (for many types of waste) in Malaysia is estimated at 10.5%,  but from our discussions, this is mostly for construction and demolition waste. For MSW specifically, the recycling rate remains largely unknown but could be very low, as domestic segregation of recyclables in Malaysia is not common practice. Despite many government recycling campaigns over the past decades, segregation rates have remained low and did not improve existing MSW management practices5,6. (See Figure 1 for comparison of recycling rates in other countries.)

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Figure 1: Municipal waste recycling rates for other countries ¬ graphic courtesy of The Chemical Engineer

At the moment there is a lack of information on the processes occurring, from waste generation and collection to transportation, treatment and disposal of waste. This low level of knowledge and lack of public awareness is a concern.

In public areas, although recycling bins are placed for example in shopping malls, airports and hawker centres (open-air food courts), a peek inside them often indicates the magnitude of the problem. On top of that, waste collectors have not been sufficiently trained and often end up mixing the waste.

End-of-life management of waste in Malaysia also needs to change. There are still numerous illegal dumpsites, especially in remote areas where there is a lack of enforcement. While the government tries to clear up and close dumpsites, nearby residents often resort to setting fire to the dumps, causing air pollution and other health and safety hazards. This highlights the importance of educating people, raising awareness and promoting a better way of dealing with solid waste.

Regulation and enforcement

The two main bodies in Malaysia which are responsible for policies and regulations implementation and enforcement for solid waste management are JPSPN, and the Solid Waste and Public Cleansing Management Corporation (SWCorp). Both fall under the Ministry of Housing and Local Government (abbreviated as KPKT in Malay) and operate in accordance with the Solid Waste and Public Cleansing Management Act 2007 (Act 672).

It’s worth noting that solid waste management in Malaysia is not fully under the authority of the Federal government. In fact, only six states (Perlis, Kedah, Pahang, Negeri Sembilan, Melaka, Johor) and two federal territories (Kuala Lumpur and Putrajaya) have accepted and complied with Act 672. The remaining seven states (Penang, Selangor, Perak, Kelantan, Terengganu, Sabah and Sarawak) and one federal territory (Labuan) are not under the administration and enforcement of Act 672. This unique devolved administration has resulted in ineffective waste management throughout the country. Although it has been envisaged that the government would be able to bring a more uniform policy and incorporate all states into Act 672, insufficient funding seems to be a major obstacle.

And there appears to be a loophole for illegal foreign waste arriving in Malaysia – false declarations claiming that imported waste is “recyclable”. Once the Approved Permits (APs) are issued by KPKT to these importers when the cargoes arrive at local customs, there is no going back – it is  Malaysia’s responsibility to deal with it! Other factors could include inadequacy of control and monitoring of exported goods from the countries of origin. The major problem arising with the “recyclable” waste shipped to Malaysia, is that it’s either left at the port without being collected by the importers or sent to landfills and most likely open dumpsites, where it is inappropriately managed.

Strategic planning and infrastructure

Currently, JPSPN and SWCorp have initiated work on promoting initiatives aimed at increasing awareness of segregating waste at source, incentivising recycling and sanitising and closing down dumpsites. JPSPN told us that limited knowledge and expertise among the policy makers and businesses has led to extraneous investment on infrastructure that is not properly operated or maintained. Incineration has often been chosen because it is considered to be the “fastest” way of getting rid of waste and is believed to be a technology that can address the massive amount of waste generated. Some notable examples of such investment include the small-scale incineration plants (<100 t/d) which have been built in Langkawi, Cameron Highlands, Pangkor Island and Tioman Island.

There are also some good examples of sustainable waste management initiatives which have already begun in Malaysia. Anaerobic digestion has been gradually introduced in community-scale projects, such as the food waste recycling facility at SS2 Petaling Jaya, managed by the Petaling Jaya City Council. The facility receives approximately 500 kg/d of food waste from the nearby hawker centre and the residents living close to the facility, and the food waste is turned into fertilisers. Recently, Malaysia’s first large-scale incinerator with energy recovery, also known as an energy-from-waste (EfW) plant (1,000 t/d) was commissioned by Cypark in Negeri Sembilan. This plant has adopted an integrated waste management concept consisting of a waste-receiving-and-segregation facility, material recovery/recycling facility, fully anaerobic bioreactor system, sanitary landfill and leachate treatment facility, all on one site. Nevertheless, the longevity of these initiatives in regards to their sustainability potential should be further investigated.

What can be done?

Raising awareness on the importance of separating waste in the home is one step towards achieving sustainable waste management – perhaps by introducing the subject into formal education at all levels (primary, secondary and tertiary), and mandatory training and qualification for collectors and operators in the waste management sectors. Also, different approaches could be used to effect culture change, including targeting places such as religious settings, small gatherings etc. Reaching those who are educated can be achieved via media, clear labelling on purchased goods, and providing guidance on separation and recycling at household level (via leaflets, apps and posters).

Alongside this, authorities need to improve the collection and management of solid waste. The government is increasingly considering the use of EfW, although this cannot be practised in all states due to the large investment required. Waste management options that promote prevention of waste generation, and prioritise where possible, repair, reuse, recycle and other recovery options need to gain traction and popularity amongst Malaysian citizens. The difficulty with promoting such options is the necessity of having different schemes in different places that meet the supply and demand for resources by the local residents. Such a model is hard to implement and can be time-consuming. Introducing a pay-as-you-throw (PAYT) scheme could be a potential solution to raising awareness and responsibility of the true costs of inappropriate management of waste, helping authorities to improve recycling practices and waste segregation at local level.

Regulatory and infrastructural changes need to go hand-in-hand in supporting collection and efficient waste management implementation, and in providing benefits to the economy and society. Regulations should be revised and/or carefully designed to empower the provision and operation of waste infrastructure services to less powerful stakeholders (eg via developing investment mechanisms and monitoring service quality), whilst controlling regulation misuse by more powerful stakeholders who want to promote their interests. The long-term nature of waste infrastructure investments (more than 20-year contracts) bears the risk of creating a lock-in situation to practices that may not provide the desired output in terms of sustainable waste management. This may create vulnerabilities in the way policy changes are implemented towards enabling sustainable development practices. Federalisation of waste management would certainly help in streamlining policy enforcement to be carried out throughout the country, providing that stricter regulations and monitoring of illegal exercises are in place. Stricter enforcement is required to prevent more waste from coming into Malaysia and to penalise those that dispose of waste illegally.

In addition, it is crucial to put the right infrastructure in place based on area-specific characteristics, and having sufficient skilled personnel to operate and maintain the infrastructure effectively over time. Strategic planning of waste management infrastructure is essential, and the waste hierarchy (the recommended priorities of waste management where it should begin with prevention and reuse, recycling and recovery, and lastly disposal) must be considered when a decision is being made.

Chemical and process engineers have a pivotal role in developing robust and innovative technologies and strategies to drive Malaysia towards more sustainable waste management practices, including recovering valuable resources from waste; mitigating emissions and toxic pollutants from entering the environment; upscaling waste processing plants to make them more economically attractive; and improving the overall energy efficiency of pre-treatment and recycling/recovery processes. For example, the integrated waste management concept requires sophisticated process integration to optimise the overall performance of the entire site. Malaysia needs more engineers to boost productivity, efficiency and sustainability in the waste management sector, and the chemical engineering curriculum in Malaysia needs to embed the subject of sustainable waste management and train young engineers to develop the technical skills required to address the solid waste management challenges.

Only by simultaneously raising awareness, stricter enforcement and monitoring, and enhancing strategic planning on infrastructure will Malaysia achieve more sustainable waste management.


Reported by:

Dr Eleni Iacovidou and Dr Kok Siew Ng, Media Relations
+44 (0)1895 268965