Increasingly, waste has become a major environmental challenge for humanity. There have been many cases where the impact of indiscriminate waste disposal on the society and the economy has been disastrous. It is not cheap to dispose of waste safely. It would incur high transport and processing costs. The increase in the volume of waste generated by man is not showing any sign of abating. In fact, a major headache for mega cities around the world is the excessive amount of waste generated by city dwellers. The quantities in some cities have reached unmanageable levels. And, the almost unstoppable global trend in rural-urban migration is not helping. There have been occasions when even a brief lull in garbage collection, either because of long holidays or industrial strike actions, has stirred up public anger.
But, lately, such waste has been viewed by many as a viable resource. Countries that are resource-deficient have put in place effective systems to recover valuable components in the waste as feed materials for industry. Plastic is one. Paper is another. Others include metals such as copper, iron and aluminium. In fact, as a result of the growing use of computers and smartphones around the world, expensive metals, including gold, have also been recovered from what is now termed as electronic waste or e-waste.
In some countries, such as Japan, Germany and some Nordic countries, recycling has become a major economic activity. The recycling industry has not only created employment but has also generated much revenue for the countries. For a viable recycling industry, a key success factor is the effective separation of waste at source. This can be at households, institutional centres or factories. Fortunately, in many of these countries, waste separation has become a culture.
In Malaysia, waste separation, especially among the households, is struggling to be a habitual exercise. It still has a long way to go before it becomes a culture. Most people still see waste as valueless. There is, therefore, no urgency to separate the waste to facilitate recycling. In countries like Japan and Germany, waste separation has evolved into a culture.
The government recently introduced a new regulation to move the waste separation agenda forward. The law makes it mandatory for households to separate waste. It is implemented in some selected states. According to the regulation, households that fail to separate waste can be fined. But for the first few months, they will be issued only stern warnings. After the pilot trial, those caught violating the waste separation regulation will be fined. The enforcement of the regulation will be extended to other states.
Using the legal means is a good first step in inculcating waste separation habit. But regulation alone will not sustain the practice. We need more than just regulations. This is where many think creating a market for recyclables would be a better motivator. Nowadays, there is a market for recyclables. But it is not transparent. The besi buruk trade thrives on throwaways. In Ampang, one can see Bangladeshis and Myanmar nationals supplying recyclables to besi buruk collection centres. We know they do not make much. But the price the centres pay for recyclables is literally pittance. It is not, therefore, enough to persuade housewives to separate waste and sell the recyclables.
This may change if the market is made more transparent.
FIRST, the government needs to publish, may be on a monthly basis, the market prices for recyclables such as plastics, old newpapers, aluminium cans, cardboards and others;
SECOND, we should set up centres to buy recyclables. To start with, the government may invest in such centres. Over time, the centres can be operated by licensed dealers; and,
THIRD, there must be processing centres for the recyclables to convert them into products for consumers. It will only be a matter of time before the recyclables would command an attractive value. Once that happens, even without the regulations, the households would voluntarily embrace waste separation as a habit because they know they can earn decent amounts.
The writer is a fellow at Academy of