Waste Separation Must Be Effective

ACCORDING to the Urban Wellbeing, Housing and Local Government Ministry, we have now exceeded the 2020 target, not in achievements to be proud off, but in waste generation, i.e. over 33,000 tonnes daily. Thus, we can proudly beat our chest and claim to have successfully achieved the 2020 target ahead of time, or be ashamed of ourselves for being such a wasteful nation. Of these, nearly 52% is indeed organic waste, meaning food being wasted. Therefore, it is critical for all of us to be conscious of what we throw into our bins, and where does all this end up, and what eventually happens to this waste?

The way forward is always education, where good sense is inculcated in the minds of our young ones, who eventually, we hope, will develop the good habits they need to grow up to become responsible citizens and leaders. But, is our current education system able to contribute to this value creation in our children? Let us think before we jump the gun and reply with a resounding “yes”. I am not insulting our education system and/or policy here, but one would need to be assured that it (our education system) is capable of doing so (value creation in our society).

Recently, the Penang state government announced its plan to make waste separation easy (“Waste Separation Made Easy”, page 6,theSun daily, June 13, 2016), where it plans to only separate waste into two  categories, i.e. recyclable and non-recyclable. Although this may be a good start, it will have very little impact on our overall waste management strategy — be it at a state or national level.

I feel there should be just one policy and one law for all of us to follow, regardless of which part of the country we live in. The reason being that waste separation should be a national issue, not a local one — as such the law should be the same for all to follow and abide by.

The strategy should be to segregate our waste at the point of generation (or at source), to at least into (a minimum of) three categories, i.e. (1) organic (2) recyclable and (3) non-recyclable.

Once we have familiarized ourselves with the segregation process, we can then further separate the recyclables perhaps into (a) metal (b) glass (c) plastic and (d) paper. However, the most environmentally damaging part of our waste is its organic component (i.e. food-based waste), and this should be segregated first. Furthermore, these are also the most valuable and high-energy components of our waste.

We would be doing a great injustice if we were to just throw away these high-energy, high-value wastes, without attempting to convert these into value-added products, ranging from organic fertilizers to insect proteins and fats. These are also the main contributor to greenhouse gaseous and leachates, as they decay at the landfills. Incidentally, such organics are the main cause for the failure of our solid waste incinerators, seen in many parts of the country, because these are not easily combustible due to the high levels of moisture content.

My question is what is the point in enforcing waste segregation, and then making it “easy” by not doing it correctly and effectively, without proper thought on the impact (if any) on overall waste management and the environment? Oh yes, as always, we seem to do things for the sake of doing it, and who cares about the impact, and its effectiveness? What I am saying is, let us be serious, let us do it correctly, from the start. 

First, let us start a serious, well thought-out campaign on the need to reduce waste generation and segregate our waste, such as having awareness programmes at all levels of schools.

Second, waste should be segregated, as said earlier, into a minimum of three categories, i.e. (i) organics — to be collected and deposited into designated areas for conversion into value-added products; (ii) recyclables — to be collected and deposited at designated recycling centres, so that it can be further separated into metal, glass, plastic and paper; (iii) non-recyclables — to be collected and deposited at landfill sites or incinerators.

Third, let us make it compulsory for all licensed premises, like hotels, restaurants, food courts, shopping complexes, businesses, hospitals and universities to start waste segregation with immediate effect (Phase 1).

Fourth, in Phase 2 — let us start implementing the separation of domestic or household waste. The authorities should provide incentives, like tax rebates, at a fixed rate (say, for example, 1%) for a fixed period (say two to three years) for homeowners to offset the initial investment needed for purchasing suitable, dedicated bins for the different waste categories (three to six bins would be required). Incentives could also be built into the value of the (separated) recyclable waste collected from each home, where instead of a fine (for non-segregating homes), an incentive to those diligently segregating will work wonders.

Fifth, schedule waste collection to include frequent collection of organic waste (say, every alternate day), with a slightly lesser frequency for non-recyclables (say, three times a week), and an even much less frequent (say, once a week) collection schedule for recyclables.

Sixth, the same waste collector can continue operating under its existing collection concession, with no fear of losing its rice bowl (waste collection contract). But, the various components of the waste must be collected separately and deposited (as scheduled) at the different (designated) sites.

Finally, after a sensible trial or acclimatization period (say, one to two years), start imposing penalties, including, but not limited to, payments for waste collection based on the amount of waste generated by each household, especially those generating beyond a normal threshold.

This way, we would be able to extend the life of our landfills at least three times, incinerate our non-recyclable waste efficiently, maximize recycling, and convert the high-energy organics into high-value insect proteins and fats, and organic fertilizers, for use in the agriculture, aquaculture and poultry sectors.