Whose rubbish is it anyway?


Should private-sector concessionaires appointed by the federal government handle solid waste management and public cleansing in Penang, effectively removing responsibility for these tasks from the state government and local authorities? If that happens, does it mean Penangites will enjoy a cleaner environment, or the reverse?

This will soon be cleaned up by private companies, should the federal government have its way.

The cabinet has decided that solid waste management (SWM) and public cleansing (PC) be privatised throughout Malaysia. Some states, including Penang, are resisting such centralisation.

A National Department of Solid Waste Management has been established and is responsible for deciding policies, plans and strategies for management of solid waste and public cleansing and other related matters. In addition, the Solid Waste Management and Public Cleansing Corporation was set up to implement policies and enforce laws. A Services Solid Waste Management Tribunal was also formed to consider claims for any loss or damage suffered, and to collect charges, fees and levies.

The SWM & PC Act (2007) provides the federal government the power to arrive at agreement with any organisation to carry out SWM, which includes solid waste services and solid waste management facilities, and PC, which covers items like public roads and places, toilets, public sewers, public markets and hawker centres (except those that are privately maintained), illegally disposed solid waste, beach cleaning, grass cutting at the edge of public roads, grass cutting in public places and removal of carcasses. Exemption from obtaining a licence can be given to charitable organisations.

Challenges & impact on Penang

Waste generated in Penang is either sent directly to the transfer stations at Batu Maung on the island or Ampang Jajar on the mainland, or to the Pulau Burung Sanitary landfill where parts of Seberang Perai Tengah and Seberang Perai Selatan are concerned. Waste that is separated or collected for recycling goes through a loop of its own and is eventually converted into raw material for products, and so returns to the top of the cycle. The current wasteflow pattern for Penang can be viewed in the chart on the next page.

Implications of federal privatisation plans

The SWM & PC Act encompasses all categories of solid waste such as domestic, commercial, construction, industrial, institutional, public, import, and others that are determined from time to time.

Under the Act, all collectors of waste and recyclables are regulated through licences. This gives the SWM Corporation control over the different players and stakeholders involved in waste collection and the recycling businesses. It is hoped that the regulatory measures come with mandatory data so that the volume of recyclables can be documented and the efficiency of the network and system evaluated.

However, the privatisation of solid waste management involves only solid waste services for households and others similar to it. The collection of other solid waste, such as commercial and construction waste, is still open to interested parties. Construction and operation of facilities are also not included in this privatisation effort, nor does it involve the termination of existing contractors, and will be notated to the concessionaire.

Waste generation

Table 1 shows the amount of waste generation and recycling per year in Penang. However, the figures for the Penang City Council (Majlis Perbandaran Pulau Pinang, or MPPP) exclude construction and demolition waste and bulk waste (such as furniture and garden waste at the Jelutong landfill).

The table above shows that Penang had an average recycling rate of 25% in 2009, but this figure may be lower due to inadequacies in data capture.

SWM Costs

The average expenditure for SWM over the last five years for the whole of Penang is about RM140mil by the two local councils whose the total revenue is RM350mil. This means that about 40% of council revenue is spent on SWM. This expenditure for both councils had not risen sharply over the years as they had been directed not to employ new staff , replace retired personnel, or purchase new equipment in view of the pending SWM Act since 2004 or earlier. It should be cautioned that due to such circumstances, the expenditure in Table 2 may not reflect true SWM & PC costs.

The total monetary allocation requested from the local authority only involves the use of existing budgetary provisions. According to the Act a part of the total costs over a period of years will be surrendered to the SWM Corporation to operate the SWM & PC for the state. Any incremental amount after this cost will be borne by the federal government. However, if the state refuses the federalisation move, it will have to bear such future costs.

The proposed privatisation does not involve the termination of existing contractors and any cost increases will be borne by the federal government. Once the SWM & PC Act is enforced, local authorities (LAs) will no longer be responsible for the management of solid waste and public cleansing.

This centralisation appears to be less effective than the decentralisation practised by many countries around the world. With the enforcement of the Act, the federal government is taking a step backwards by taking over a basic function of the local authorities.

There are several major implications and challenges for Penang in the implementation of the Act:
• Local authorities will no longer have a role in the management of solid waste and public cleansing. The basis for establishing LAs in the first place was to perform these important tasks.
• The SWM & PC Act is a one-size-fitsall solution and does not encourage local initiatives and multi-layered solutions that may be more creative. For example, cities like Taipei or Phitsanulok in Thailand are very successful in solid waste management practices and activities, and focus on reducing waste at source and reduce, reuse and recycle (3R) practices.
• More creative local solutions can be found if these involve stakeholders who wish to work with the state government and local authority.
• From a legal point of view, the state government and local authorities are not empowered to take any action against the concessionaire if its performance is not satisfactory. One such case was that of Dewan Bandaraya Kuala Lumpur (DBKL) in 1997. Originally, the private contractor managed SWM & PC well, but after a few years, services began to decline and the concessionaire’s equipment and machinery also suffered damage. The use of “compactor” trucks was eventually reduced and ordinary trucks were used to transport waste. Due to this, leachate ended up dirtying and polluting roads around KL. The concessionaire was also not able to clean up waste speedily and efficiently from public places after celebrations such as Merdeka and New Year. Eventually, DBKL had to re-evaluate the contract, re-establish a special unit and re-employ workers as well as purchase machinery and equipment to deal with emergency requests. This caused a great deal of inconvenience and costs to DBKL and at the same time, affected its image because the public still believed that SWM services was its responsibility. In addition, the concessionaire was not encouraged to initiate awareness campaigns to reduce waste or encourage the practice of 3Rs in the community because its sole motivation was profit. The company was paid for the weight of waste it collected daily.

It is obvious that for the sake of efficiency and accountability, a local authority or a private company established by the state government should continue to manage solid waste. This promises a better use of resources as the state government and the local authority can monitor and control the performance of SWM & PC contractors more closely.

Many local authorities are still waiting for the specific regulations that will determine how the SWM & PC Act is to be enforced. These have yet to be officially revealed. The Penang State Government cannot make an informed choice about accepting or not accepting the federal offer if crucial details are withheld.

Penang needs to seek viable alternatives should it refuse the federal takeover under the Act. Time is running out. The local authorities are waiting for instructions on the next move from the state government, but at the same time trying their best to handle their mammoth tasks with insufficient manpower, equipment and machinery.

As long as this issue is not settled satisfactorily, we cannot but continue to talk rubbish.

Khor Hung Teik is a self-styled “garbologist” who is currently a senior research analyst in seri. He claims that he has been talking “rubbish” since his involvement in the Penang Local Government Consultative Forum in 2000.

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