Ten zero-waste cities: What makes Penang stand out in waste recycling?

It has the highest recycling rate in Malaysia at 43 per cent

By Sonia Henam, Swati Singh Sambyal
Published: Thursday 14 November 2019

Penang is leading Malaysia’s recycling initiative, recording 43.25 per cent in 2017 ― a figure that was double the national recycling rate of 21 per cent.

The state has been performing fairly well in recovering materials from its households and businesses due to its existing zero-waste policies, which were enforced on June 1, 2017.

Under the policy, residents of landed properties have to place recyclables such as paper, plastic, used glass containers, and aluminium tins beside their rubbish bins for collection.

“Each Penang resident generates at least 1.1 kilogram of waste daily. Around 1,800 tonnes of waste are dumped at the Pulau Burung Landfill daily,” Chew Eng Soon from the Seberang Perai City Council (MBSP), said.

“For landed properties, the collection is done every Saturday by the Penang Island City Council (MBPP) on the island and Seberang Perai City Council (MBSP) on the mainland. For high-rise dwellers, the duty falls on the joint management bodies (JMB) or management corporations (MC) to manage the system. They have a right to sell the recyclable items,” he added.

Those who fail to carry out waste separation will be slapped with a maximum fine of RM2,000 ($477), or a jail term of up to one year, or both, upon conviction starting from June 1, 2017, Chew said.

“In 2017, MBPP and MBSP allocated RM95.64million ($22.8 million) and RM98.99 million ($23.6 million) respectively to deal with waste and public health. An estimated RM2.5million ($596,162.5) can be saved annually if the waste taken to landfills is reduced by four per cent,” he noted.

For Malaysia, the federal government spends almost RM2 billion ($476,930,000) a year on solid waste disposal and public cleansing works. At present, only 17.3 per cent of the solid waste is recycled. The government aims for a recycling rate of 22 per cent by 2020 according to Chew.

On the path of zero-waste

On the mainland, MBSP has initiatives towards diverting organic waste from the general waste in Seberang Perai. On the other side of the state — Penang Island — MBPP does not have a specific programme for organic waste management.

Nearly half or more of waste generated at homes comprise of organic waste made up of kitchen waste (peelings) and food waste.

“Since the 1990s, Consumers’ Association of Penang (CAP) was an active member and together with the other groups started working on raising awareness among the public to start segregating their discards to be sent to recyclers,” said Mageswari Sangaralingam, research officer from CAP.

“As CAP was also very much involved in sustainable agriculture projects (natural farming, urban garden, chemical-free farming, garden to plate campaigns), we aggressively promoted composting at household, community and farm levels.  In the meantime, we had also sent a memorandum to the federal government in 2000, pushing for separation at source laws,” she added.

Adopting composting methods learnt from a study tour in India, CAP introduced pipe composting to Penang households, particularly those residing in apartments and partnered with schools and residential complexes in Penang to introduce various types of composting methods, added Sangaralingam.

CAP also worked closely with several schools to manage waste in their schools. Apart from composting, upcycling is also being promoted among teachers and students to produce teaching aids.

For example, discarded CDs or soldering boards are used for labeling. Other students arranged CDs to make up a board for writing, made cloth bags from discarded t-shirts, and converted discarded containers as pots for planting.

Minimising waste during festive season also played an important role in managing waste. For instance, during the Thaipusam festival, it is a norm for devotees to break a coconut to fulfill their vow and as a sign of devotion to the deity.

However, most of the coconuts now end in the landfill. In 2017, it was estimated that around 400,000 broken coconuts with their meat intact ended in the landfills.

As the number of coconuts being broken and ending up in the landfill increased every year, CAP and other social organisations called for a press conference early January 2018, urging devotees to break fewer coconuts.

“A suggestion was also given to break just one coconut with full devotion and channel the money spent in breaking coconuts to other charity work. Also, during the same festival, CAP placed placards in every stall to remind them not to waste food,” Sangaralingam said.

On January 3, 2013, Seberang Perai’s Community Affairs Department established the Eco Community Unit to increase awareness on waste reduction and recycling. It handled around 20 city-wide activities such as zero-waste programmes for schools and communities, recognition programmes for school recycling and community farming activities among others.

The Green School Award, for example, has involved 109 primary schools and 43 secondary schools in raising environmental awareness among students.

Challenges ahead

In spite of such good work happening in the state, the state government has proposed incineration of waste to address congested landfills in Penang and is aligned with the federal government’s plan of states having their own incinerators.

If the plan pushes through, tipping fees are expected to reach four times the cost of transporting waste to landfills, which is currently at MYR 22.22 ($5.31) per tonne.

When asked on the viability and dangers of incinerators, CAP has repeatedly urged the state government to stay on course towards zero-waste, Sangaralingam said.

With Penang achieving a record-high 43 per cent recycling rate in 2018, the state has great potential in reaching a higher waste diversion target. Likewise, Penang should join countries and cities that are closing their doors to incinerators and embracing zero-waste.

This is the third of a 10-part series

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