How to Stem the Deluge of Waste We Ourselves Generate?

By Goh Chun Sheng

September 2022 FEATURE
main image
An open dumping site sitting next to a river in Miri.

MALAYSIA’S LANDFILL SITES occupy an area of ​​nearly 1,200ha, about the size of 2,000 football fields. More worryingly, open dumps are double that, covering the size of 4,000 football fields.

This environmental issue is not only prevalent here, but also across Southeast Asia, where the growing waste stream management cannot keep up with the pace of consumption. Much of the municipal solid waste (MSW) ends up in unmanaged open dumping sites, and only some go into large, systematically-managed sanitary landfills.

This is a major “side effect” of rapid consumption growth. Tellingly, the total energy consumption in Southeast Asia has grown 116% in two decades, far outpacing the global growth rate at 41%.

The dramatic increase in MSW is one of the primary challenges facing regional sustainable development.

Threats from Ill-disposed Refuse

Improperly disposed MSW destroys wildlife habitats and causes water pollution. Leachate from landfills may also contain large amounts of nitrogen, which, when it enters an ecosystem, disrupts the nutritional cycle and balance. Other harmful substances in the leachate are toxins such as mercury. These contaminate drinking water sources, causing harm to animals and humans.

Furthermore, many landfills in Southeast Asia do not capture or treat the methane gas released from the decomposition of organic matter, such as food scraps. The global warming potential of methane is 84 times more than carbon dioxide measured over 20 years.

Dumping sites and poorly managed landfills release foul odour and cause random fires and pest problems. In most cases, rural and low-income areas near cities are the targeted areas for discarding MSW. In my visits to several open dumps and landfills in Malaysia, which are often located at river mouths, I have witnessed how many residents, including children, use their bare hands to pick up what they consider valuable materials from waste piles.

With large amounts of MSW being generated and improperly treated, marine pollution in Southeast Asia has reached its critical level. Plastics account for approximately 80% to 85% of marine litter. To date, the region cumulatively contributes more than one-third of the world’s marine plastic pollution.

A major component of plastic waste in Southeast Asia is single-use plastic, with most originating from aquaculture and fishing, including discarded fishing gear and lines. In the past three years, the Covid-19 pandemic has led to the large-scale consumption of plastic protective equipment (especially masks). Unfortunately, these used items are often not properly disposed of.

Southeast Asia has also become somewhat of the world’s "garbage dump". The region has been accepting an enormous amount of plastic waste from developed countries, leading to improper disposal at waste management facilities.

A landfill in Bintulu.

Fuel from the Fire

A well-managed Waste-to-Energy Incinerator (WTE) could be a viable option with multiple advantages over open dumping and landfilling. WTE has increased rapidly around the world in recent years, easing the pressure on many cities dealing with MSW. It does not only handle waste but generates heat and electricity for household and industrial purposes. Currently, there are more than 800 WTE facilities around the world, processing about 11% of the world's MSW and generating 429TWh of electricity without the problem of intermittent power supply. Compared with other renewable energy sources, energy and waste management departments can share the subsidies and costs.

However, there are two conditions to take into account. The first is that WTE is only sustainable with proper flue gas purification and ash treatment to avoid harmful emissions and pollution. Technically, risks can be greatly reduced through strict pollution control measures, but in many developing countries, there is a high risk of ineffective enforcement. When companies do not adhere to standard operating procedures and regulations, there is a risk of toxic gas emission during incineration.

Some WTE projects in developing countries are also not transparent, with many technical details hidden from the public. Local governments tend to minimise public opposition or tone down the issues.  These projects are then erected in areas with lower income or smaller populations. Actions like these undermine trust and confidence in governments and WTE companies.

One misconception is that WTE can solve the waste problem by burning everything to ash. Unfortunately, WTE does not work that way. It needs to be designed and customised based on the characteristics of the local MSW composition, as not everything can go into incinerators without treatment. Non-degradable wastes, such as glass, plastic, metal and other materials are unsuitable for direct incineration and need to be sorted in advance.

To be sure, this simple classification is enough to diminish the emission of toxic substances and the cost of WTE. Unfortunately, scores of Southeast Asian towns and cities have not effectively implemented garbage sorting, and this has raised many challenges for WTE in the areas of raw waste collection, waste pre-treatment and residue disposal. In short, it is the responsibility of the authorities to consciously put the puzzle pieces in place, avoiding the simple mindset of seeking a one-off “burn-them-all” solution.

There must also be an increase of community participation through open and transparent communication. Opening the facilities to the public for them to learn and understand the waste treatment process is important. In some Chinese cities, this strategy has indeed effectively changed public perception of waste incineration. The authorities may further adopt appropriate policies to effectively compensate residents in areas that house the facilities.

We can also learn from Tokyo's "garbage war" in the ‘60s. There was rapid urbanisation and population growth after the war, leading to a huge problem with MSW disposal. It came to a point where the community around Tokyo’s main landfill and dumping site set up roadblocks to stop garbage trucks from entering. Eventually, the government established the “treat your own waste” principle and issued an ultimatum to build waste incineration plants in all wards. They later launched a vigorous garbage sorting campaign, changing the Japanese way of life and making it the cleanest city in the world today.

Southeast Asia’s urbanisation is expected to be more intense in the coming years. How to optimally manage waste disposal, energy consumption and climate change, when presented with options like WTE where opportunities and risks coexist, remains the challenge for Southeast Asian countries.

Goh Chun Sheng

is a researcher at Sunway University and Harvard University. His research interests lie within the intersection of bio-economy development and environmental restoration, with a special focus on both Malaysian and Indonesian Borneo.