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Information about recycling is everywhere but Samantha Joseph wonders if we realise the implications

THERE is probably not a single Malaysian who has not heard about recycling. It’s become almost meaningless with how often it is repeated, in campaigns, on bins, in the news.

In fact it might as well be meaningless. A survey by the Solid Waste Management & Public Cleaning Corporation’s (PPSPPA) Recycling & Public Awareness Division in 2012, showed that while 99 per cent of respondents were aware of recycling programmes, only 68.8 per cent said they would put this awareness into practice.

So, 68.8 per cent is not so bad, you think. That’s like more than half! Germany’s recycling rate is 70 per cent, so we’re almost there, right? In reality, we aren’t. Intention to recycle and make environmentally responsible decisions isn’t necessarily followed through with the required actions.

While 68.8 per cent of 17,000 respondents in the PPSPPA survey said they would recycle, our actual rate of recycling is a paltry 10 per cent.

There’s no denying that recycling is important. A paper published by Sharifah Norkhadijah Syed Ismail and Latifah Abd. Manaf in the Journal Of Toxicology & Environmental Health Sciences last year, pointed out that we’re running out of landfills: Based on the average waste growth rate of Selangor (3.0 per cent) and Kuala Lumpur (1.1 per cent), the volume of waste in the State (Selangor) is projected to increase from 2.9 million tonnes in 2010 to 3.6 million tonnes in 2020. It is apparent that the existing seven landfills can only receive half of this waste per year (1.6 million tonnes per year).

Turning to incinerators as an alternative may not yield the best results, as these are expensive to operate and uses up more diesel and the more efficient plasma technology, used by recycling leader Belgium, isn’t a consideration yet.

It really is up to individual effort, but why is it so difficult for Malaysians to actively take part in recycling?

CORPORATE EFFORT

If there’s one thing the authorities like, it’s education campaigns with little practical follow-ups. While educational campaigns are an important part of increasing environmental consciousness, they have little impact without concrete steps taken to reinforce the behaviour.

According to Social Psychology And The Stimulation Of Recycling Behaviors: The Block Leader Approach by Shawn M. Burn, “such campaigns are based on the assumption that humans are rational, and that once supplied with the relevant environmental information, attitudes will change and create behavior changes as well (O’Riordan, 1976).”

Unfortunately, these assumptions are faulty and environmental education, even when it changes attitudes, will not necessarily change behaviour.”

Of course, this doesn’t mean it’s a lost cause to educate people, as it is the first step towards actual proactive efforts.

Manjula Murugesan, environment manager at Tetra Pak, says: “There are three main myths within the public consciousness that work against increasing the level of recycling.”

She says Tetra Pak has invested in Roper Reports to discover the views and attitudes of consumers around the world towards recycling. These obstacles are ignorance, inconvenience and irrelevance.

They found that although the idea that one should recycle had been impressed upon many respondents, exactly what they should do seemed beyond their grasp. “A lot of people say “I feel guilty” when they don’t recycle. When we studied environmental attitudes and desires, we found some very interesting results. If you look at ‘I would do more for the environment, but I don’t know how’, 59 per cent of Malaysians agreed to that. If you show them how, show them where, they will do it,” says Manjula.

“So people ‘say, okay I want to be environmentally-responsible, I feel guilty when I’m not doing it, but I feel like you should lead it’.”

The ‘you’ in this case, she says, are large corporations. The community looks to larger organisations to take the first steps, and to essentially make it easier to recycle the waste of their own products.

With this in mind, Tetra Pak has taken the initiative to recycle its own beverage cartons and is trying to make the process easier for customers and more economically — viable for end-product partners.

Its end-product partner, KPT Recycle, has factories kitted with machines to recycle Tetra Pak’s multi-material cartons into things like stationery and roofing tiles.

Because access is often an obstacle to recycling (regular excuses include “I don’t know where to go, there are no recycling centres nearby, it’s too much effort when I don’t even know if the products get recycled”), Tetra Pak has launched a microsite, www.recycle-easy.com.my, to help consumers find the nearest drop-off points and recycling centres.

INDIVIDUAL PARTS

The Roper Reports mirrors a study by Ipsos Public Affairs, an organisation that conducts research on public policy, which found that in America, the most common reasons stopping people from recycling were that the recycling centre was not accessible (25 per cent), recycling was too time-consuming (10 per cent) and lack of knowledge about what was recyclable and what wasn’t (8 per cent).

Excuses are the same around the world it seems. Perhaps it is best to look at countries that have a good track record when it comes to recycling like Sweden, Japan, Germany and Belgium, where recycling is a habit and an expectation rather than something you get a pat on the back for.

Burn’s paper points out that the incentivised method of encouraging people to recycle often backfires, because “individuals come to believe that the reason they are performing an activity is for the extrinsic reward. Therefore, when the reward is withdrawn so is the reason for performing the behaviour.”

A friend who recently returned from living in London, pointed out that she felt obligated to recycle due to a combination of peer pressure (everyone recycled) and policy pressure (if waste wasn’t separated properly, it would not be picked up by garbage trucks, causing inconvenience to yourself and the neighbours).

It’s time Malaysians feel a bit more responsible for their garbage because no one else is going to be.

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