Rubbish is like an endemic disease with uncollected waste choking our rivers, and littering our highways and byways.  The vast proportion of the waste that does get collected ends up on a dumpsite where it contaminates the environment and causes public health concerns. For, in spite of the billions of Ringgit of public money that have been spent on the collection and disposal of our Municipal Solid Waste (MSW) over the years, there are still only 8 sanitary landfills servicing the whole nation.

As 2020 approaches it is obvious that in terms of public cleansing and waste management, we are still in the dark ages when compared to developed countries.
Back in 1999 the European Union issued the European Landfill Directive for its member states with the overall aim of preventing the negative effects of landfills on the environment.  
In these developed countries it is well understood that landfills result in pollution of surface water, groundwater, soil and air, and have a negative effect on the global environment in terms of contributing to the greenhouse effect, as well as presenting risks to public health. There is also the recognition that even sanitary landfills can become compromised after a period of time and offer no guarantee when it comes to keeping the toxic residues produced by MSW from entering the ecosystem.

This legislation forced the member nations to reassess how waste is handled and disposed of and by eliminating landfills the European countries have shifted the paradigm of how waste is regarded.

And herein lies the crux of the issue in Malaysia: Historically waste has always been regarded as an expensive problem, a natural bi-product of our consumer society.  This is however an erroneous perception, for in reality waste is a renewable national asset, a storehouse of resources that can be reused, recycled and recovered to the benefit of the environment and society in general.

Yet, in spite of lip-service to the notion of reclaiming, reusing and recycling, the government’s master plan for waste disposal is still totally dependent on landfills, and despite the huge amounts of public funds that have been diverted into waste management, we haven’t made any progress in solving our waste problem.

In contrast, the European model of recovering as much of the waste as possible has spawned a multi-million dollar industry.
The new Act
The 2007 Solid Waste and Public Cleansing Management Act was finally enacted in September 2011. It transfers responsibility for solid waste management and public cleansing from the Local Authorities to the Federal Government. As a result, new federal institutions including the Department of National Solid Waste Management and the Solid Waste Management and Public Cleansing Corporation were established.
This Act claims to bring solid waste management (SWM) in line with global state-of-the-art practices at no additional cost to the public. It includes regulation and enforcement tools as well as imposing higher responsibilities on the stakeholders. The Act also enabled the privatization of SWM. 

This privatization was bulldozed through parliament in much the same way as the recent Peaceful Assembly Bill and the development of Kg. Baru were hastily passed through the house with little debate, despite a lack of support from the majority of the people who will be affected by it.

When we take a close look at the Malaysian government’s strategy for implementing the act we find that the master plan is almost totally committed to building sanitary landfills to cope with the situation. Of course sanitary landfills are better than dumpsites, but it is clear that the same old mindset is still at play; the one that regards waste as a costly problem and not as a constant supply of untapped and renewable resources. 
This shows at best how misguided the Malaysian government is in trying to provide a world-class service.  At worst it illustrates that the solid waste management strategy has been developed with the interest of the industrial players in mind rather than what is best for the environment and society in general.

Lack of transparency and accountability
There is strong evidence of mismanagement and a lack of transparency in our national waste management strategyTake, for example, the Bukit Tagar sanitary landfill in the north of Selangor, which is managed by KUB-Berjaya Enviro Sdn. Bhd. This 1,700-acre site was reportedly chosen because of its isolation from important groundwater aquifers thus eliminating the risk of water pollution.  However sceptics claim that the choice of location was determined by the then minister of housing’s desire to help out a friend who had already acquired the land thinking that the new airport was going to be located nearby. Since KLIA was subsequently built in Sepang, the minister’s friend was left holding a pretty worthless piece of real estate.  Then, or so the story goes, the government announced the closures of the Taman Beringen and Air Hitam dumps, in Kepong and Puchong, and acquired the land from the minister’s friend to build the Bukit Tagar sanitary landfill.  In addition to the cost of the land, the government reportedly handed out RM400 million to build the landfill.
On top of that, there’s the cost to DBKL for using Bukit Tagar to consider. At present the tipping fee at Bukit Tagar is RM28.80 per ton. By this time next year it will have risen by a staggering 58.7 percent to RM49 per ton. Then there’s the cost of transporting all that waste 50 kms north, and we mustn’t forget the cost of collecting the waste; the cost of transporting it to the Taman Beringen transfer station and the compacting fee.

According to KUB-Berjaya Enviro’s statistics, the Bukit Tagar landfill receives about 3,000 tons of waste per day.  However, if this amount of waste was sent to a Waste to Energy plant and processed to extract its latent energy, it could supply up to 25MW of energy – enough to power around 50,000 modern 3 bedroom homes using 2 air conditioners, a fridge and a television. Because Waste to Energy management strategy is sustainable it’s bankable and can be funded by private venture capital. In addition, the different revenue streams that are created, which make it sustainable, ensure that tipping fees can be kept at an affordable level.  

Immediately after the Solid Waste and Public Cleansing Management bill was accepted by the cabinet, the Housing and Local Government Minister, Datuk Chor Chee Heung government announced the award of contracts to three companies: Alam Flora, Southern Waste Management and E-Idaman. Besides payment from the local authorities, Chor said the companies had not been doing a good job because of a lack of funds and so they were also awarded between RM500mil and RM600mil a year from the Federal Government.This decision was made public just one day after the legislation came into force and, to the best of my knowledge, without any open tender exercise having taken place.  

The Act also raises issues of accountability, for under it, the minister’s decision is final and cannot be challenged in court. Furthermore, the legislation places all decision making in the hands of the Director General of the Waste Department, with no checks and balances to ensure that abuse of power does not occur.

The ‘red tape’ associated with the Act creates a barrier to local innovators and new players trying to enter the industry. For example, the National Waste Committee, headed by the deputy prime minister, is supposed to meet quarterly to look out for new ideas, and technology that would enhance and innovate the waste industry. All potential players wanting to enter the industry or suggestions on new technology must go before the committee for consideration.  However, I am reliably informed, that the National Waste Committee hasn’t met for the past year. Therefore, nothing gets done.  This is a classic ‘Catch 22’ situation, and hardly an incentive to develop local technologies. 

On the other hand, One German company who has been given approval to build biological composting plants are using a technology that, as far as I know, has not been proven with our waste profile.  I’m not implying by any means that they are not doing a good job, but I’m sure there are Malaysian companies that could do an equally good if they had been given the opportunity.

In effect Malaysia’s solid waste management system operates like a cartel, with only a few, select industry players getting contracts.  Private companies and individuals offering green technology solutions are constantly being sidelined.