A Solid Future for Waste Recycling in Penang

Penang’s recycling rate is at an impressive 42.69%. Last year, the Seberang Perai Municipal Council (MPSP) reported recycling rates of 47.16%, while over on the island, the Penang Island City Council (MBPP) chalked 31.2%. The aim is to hit 70% on the mainland by 2022 and 40% on the island by next year – multiple times the current national recycling rate, which stands at under 18%.

Rubbish in Penang goes from individual houses to either recycling facilities or the Pulau Burung landfill.

Waste Segregation At Source

June marks the third anniversary of the Waste Segregation At Source policy. Josephine Tan, general manager of the Penang Green Council, says the policy has been rolled out in stages over the last three years, with the focus being on different segments of society each year.

“Since June 2017, this policy has been enforced on strata and high-rise buildings with a compound of RM250 charged on those who fail to comply. The enforcement then expanded to commercial premises on January 1, 2018 and landed properties on January 1 this year,” Tan says, adding that the recycling rate in Penang has increased from 37.76% in 2015 to 42.69% last year.

A Penang resident putting recyclable items outside his bin just before 8am on a Saturday.

“Those who stay in landed properties have the choice of sending their segregated recyclable waste to community recycling centres, selling them or placing them beside their garbage bins every Saturday from 8am to 4pm for the local councils to collect.

“The main challenge for the Waste Segregation At Source policy is people's mindsets and attitudes. Some might think it too troublesome and time consuming to send waste to the recycling centres or even to bring the recyclable wastes out on Saturday morning before 8am,” Tan expounds.

For this reason, the state is practising both a carrot and a stick policy – encouraging recycling through campaigns, events and education that highlight the importance of cutting down waste and reusing recyclables; as well as imposing fines on those who adamantly refuse to play their role in separating their waste.

“From June 2017 to January this year, a total of 166,484 compound notices have been issued by the local councils to landed properties, 294 to stratified titles and 9,430 to commercial premises. These are warnings to the people in these premises for failing to segregate their waste.

“We have also started issuing RM250 compounds and so far, 108 landed properties, 31 joint management bodies (JMBs) or management councils (MCs) and 603 commercial premises have been fined,” Tan adds.

Recycling cartons placed at a government department in Komtar.

Positive effects have been seen since the Waste Segregation At Source policy came into effect. From 2015 to 2018, the number of recycling centres in Penang has increased from 55 to 123 and the number of schools segregating waste in the state from 213 to 271. The number of licensed recyclable collectors in the state has also multiplied over six-fold, from 10 in 2016 to 61 in 2018.

“Awareness and education on the practice of Waste Segregation At Source will continue to be carried out by the Penang Green Council, especially to landed property owners via our House-to-House Programme so that the owners can get a better understanding of how it works,” Tan says, adding that every Penangite has a role to play in going green and saving the planet.

The Rubbish Route

Domestic waste is generally divided into two categories: recyclable waste and general waste. For the latter, the landfill is the final destination, but rarely is it a direct trip.

“Waste transfer stations are set up to collect municipal solid waste from surrounding areas for transport via silos in prime movers along great distances to landfills, which are often far away from populated areas,” says State Housing, Local Government, Town and Rural Development Committee chairman Jagdeep Singh Deo.

This strategy, which includes the compression of waste, is practical and economical, he adds. “One prime mover trip to Pulau Burung can replace six garbage truck trips, reducing traffic congestion, their carbon footprint and drivers – which translates to lower costs for the operator. Moreover, if garbage trucks were to go all the way to Pulau Burung to dispose of rubbish, they will not have enough time to finish their waste collection schedule,” Jagdeep adds.

Penang currently has two waste transfer stations – one in Ampang Jajar and a new energy-efficient one in Batu Maung that was opened in January this year. All municipal solid waste on the island is sent to the latter before making its way to Pulau Burung via the Second Penang Bridge, while the former serves the entire Seberang Perai North area along with most of Central Seberang Perai. Waste from remaining areas and from Seberang Perai South bypass the transfer stations and are sent directly to the landfill.

The Batu Maung station is unique in more ways than one. Firstly, Jagdeep says, there is no disruption in work at the facility, even in the event of power outages, as the vertical system employed uses gravity to load waste from municipal trucks into the silos.

The RM75mil station, built on a Build-Operate-Transfer (BOT) model, utilises natural daylight harvesting, roof insulation to reduce heat to internal spaces, has an efficient sun-shading design and is equipped with energy-saving fittings and appliances.

Many stratified homes have set special areas for recycling, like this apartment complex in Bayan Lepas.

Separate areas for separate items have been set up in this apartment complex in Sungai Ara.

It also contains a herb and food garden, on-site composting facilities and practises rain water harvesting to reduce potable water consumption. It has a processing capacity of 800 tons of waste a day – 550 tons of domestic waste, 150 tons of bulk waste and 100 tons of green waste.

Jagdeep says that the facility is also playing host to a pilot project for food waste segregation in the state, after Malaysian homegrown company Darco was awarded the tender in a Request For Proposal exercise. “Under this contract, Darco collects food waste from restaurants, hotels, food courts and factories at its own cost and processes them under the concept of waste-to-energy. The energy produced is in the form of biogas,” he says.

The programme is expected to be extended to household food waste in the future, with a projection of 150 tons per day of kitchen waste estimated to be initially collected. Jagdeep adds that necessary measures and permissions are also underway to allow Darco to extend this initiative to Seberang Perai, bringing the whole state under a single system for food waste recycling.

Landfills and Dumpsites

Pulau Burung is the final destination for unrecyclable domestic waste in the state. Penang Welfare, Caring Society and Environment Committee chairman Phee Boon Poh says the third phase in the engineered landfill site has just been opened and spans 350 acres.

“This is the last of the space we have in Pulau Burung and by our calculations, it can only last us for the next 30 years. That is why we need good policies to reduce our output and to use the technology available to cut down and rehabilitate our waste,” Phee says.

The landfill in Pulau Burung – which, interestingly, is not an island and is located along the coast of Seberang Perai South – was opened around the turn of the century and was aimed at being an engineered pit for waste.

Generally, landfills differ from dumpsites where rubbish is thrown with little planning or rehabilitation facilities. Phee however explains that Phase I and II of the Pulau Burung landfill did not go according to plan and the proper groundwork needed to harvest landfill gas from the site was simply just not there.

“To harvest methane gas, you need to have installed a rigid membrane at the bottom of the site and then, after the landfill reaches capacity, you top it up with a different plastic membrane, with the site resembling a balloon. There are no membranes at the bases of Phase I and II, which had no proper systems planned, so it is almost impossible to close the site and collect methane gas from it,” Phee says.

The first two landfill phases, he adds, have long reached capacity and have been overstressed for years, which makes the opening of Phase III all the more crucial. “Phase III has been equipped with all the right facilities: membranes, separate cells and proper piping for leachates. We have currently opened one of six cells,” he says.

On the cards for rehabilitation is the Jelutong dumpsite. Opened in 1992, this site and its peat fires have been a sore spot for nearby residents. In 2000 the dumpsite was limited to construction and demolition waste, though Phee says that other types of rubbish were frequently smuggled into the area.

Currently, the level of waste there measures around 39-40m above sea level. “We are talking about 14 to 15 million metric tons of rubbish, piled up to the height of around the 10th floor of Komtar. Officially, the site is around 84 acres wide,” Phee says.

Mixed development is planned for the site but significant rehabilitation works need to be done before anything can materialise. Phee says securing a parameter, conducting hydro flow studies, ensuring the alignment of the foreshore and of course, building a material recovery facility to process the waste at the site are all needed to transform the dumpsite.

“We need to remove eight million metric tons of rubbish. I estimate that the rehabilitation process will take at least five years,” Phee says. He adds that the agreement with PLB Engineering – a local company that won the tender for the Jelutong dumpsite rehabilitation and whose subsidiary currently holds the concession for the operation and maintenance of Pulau Burung – is scheduled to be signed in the near future, marking the start of a significant project that will hopefully turn waste into wealth for Penang.

Andrea Filmer is a freelance journalist who has lived in the US and Australia but, for reasons unknown to herself, finds it impossible to call anywhere but Penang home.

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