Going up in smoke

RUBBISH disposal is a lucrative business in urban areas, so much so that we have companies that are eager to propose incinerators to help us deal with the problem.

After all, Japan and Germany are big-time users of this technology, so it has to be good right?

In 2004, the Kuantan Municipal Council built an incinerator for research and development purpose.

That incinerator design consumed about 120 litres of diesel to incinerate only one tonne of waste, due to the high water content of local waste.

That is essentially the difference between Japan and us when it comes to incinerator technology — Japan does not waste good diesel to burn rubbish like we would.

In order to utilise this technology properly, we really need to separate our rubbish first. Otherwise, burning wet rubbish requires adding fuel to the waste and that means we are burning money to dispose of waste.

It should be no problem to force Malaysians to start separating their rubbish, as a provision has been included under the Solid Waste and Public Cleansing Management Act for this purpose.

The clause just has not been activated by the Urban Wellbeing, Housing and Local Government Minister.

However, rubbish separation is not just a responsibility for households but markets, restaurants, factories, shopping malls and office towers too.

Most businesses would not have the means to enforce rubbish separation, and there is that tricky issue about being held responsible for the mess if someone decides to dump unsorted rubbish into your wastebin.

This is a headache our Government will have no answer for because there are only so many things laws can deal with.

People’s attitudes need to be changed for rubbish separation to work, and we just do not have that sort of civic consciousness in our society.

So, we have a problem separating rubbish at source but our Government is still keen on incinerators. Will that be a problem?

Well, we already have several incinerators operating in Malaysia — located in Langkawi, Pangkor, Tioman, Labuan and Cameron Highlands, to name a few.

According to a Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM) study on incinerators done in 2013, incinerators “had failed due to faulty design, improper operation, poor maintenance, high diesel usage and waste characteristics, due to high moisture content of 60% to 70%.”

The existing incinerator operators know this is a huge problem and seek to mitigate it by separating the rubbish as best they can.

For example, the Pangkor incinerator operator segregates moist food waste and dispose of it at an adjacent landfill but the process is not perfect as the waste is already mixed by the time it gets to the incinerator.

This in turn causes the burning to be imperfect and smog is released into the air.

When it comes to incinerators in general, of equal concern is the residual ash from the burning process with possible by-products of toxins depending on what sort of rubbish got burnt (we would not know since rubbish segregation does not happen here). Does our Government have a programme to store and contain such waste in a safe area?

The same UKM study actually notes the following: “research has shown that in communities where incinerator plants are built, its long-term effects come in the form of reproductive dysfunction, neurological damage and other health effects are known to occur at very low exposures to many of the metals, and other pollutants released by incineration facilities.”

Are the authorities and all the proponents for incinerators really sure this sort of technology is suitable for the Klang Valley given the problem we have of even separating and sorting our rubbish?

What do we do when the incinerator has reached its capacity and unable to cater to escalating waste due to population growth?

Do we build more incinerators or do we advocate a sustainable method of reducing waste through Zero Waste Management when the amount of waste is reduced significantly and substantially?

There are private companies that are eager to explore such methods of turning our waste into useful products if they are given the chance.

Example technology includes anaerobic digestion that is a simple, natural breakdown of organic matter, which produces biogas — a fuel that can be burned to produce both heat and electricity — and methane, a substance that can be used as vehicle fuel.

The process produces a by-product called digestate, which can be used as fertiliser as it is rich in nutrients.

Indeed a whole new industry can be spawned from such recycling initiatives, which can be equally lucrative, as the by-products are actually useful.

But such possibilities are being overlooked in favour of implementing incinerator technology where we will be using fuel to burn away the rubbish.

Whatever it is, so long as the process is not looked at in detail and the issues I have highlighted not resolved, our Government can expect to face resistance from each and every resident group where the project is proposed next.

> Mak Khuin Weng cannot afford to send our politicians overseas for ‘lawatan sambil belajar’ trips, so he hopes this article would suffice in terms of his advocacy for recycling.


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