Saturday, December 19, 2009


I recently unearthed this article I wrote back in 1996 for my column, Soapbox, in Journal One. Sadly that magazine didn't survive but nothing's changed that much on the garbage front since then, in fact in many ways things have got worse. 

Has anyone noticed how we seem to be surrounded by rubbish these days? Is this an attempt to get into the Guinness Book of Records as the most filthy country or what? I recently overheard two tourists grumbling about the amount of garbage they’d seen during their holiday and I got the impression that they wouldn’t be spending anymore of their hard-earned foreign currency on future holidays to Malaysia.

Discarded plastic, Styrofoam boxes and empty drink cans litter the highways and byways the length and breadth of the country, so it’s not only the tourists who are affected.  It’s now even becoming quite common to see garbage being dropped from moving cars.  It would appear that these litter louts give no apparent thought to the environment or the safety of other road users.  Just imagine what mayhem could ensue from a carelessly discarded fast food paper napkin flying onto another car’s windscreen. Because they drop their rubbish at high speed there’s no opportunity to pick it up and hand it back to them with a sweet, “I think you dropped something” - a tactic I do use with messy pedestrians.  Another thing that bothers me is to see children playing in and around garbage - a classic scenario for sakit purut if ever I saw one.

I think a lot of people have become desensitized to the problem. Let’s face it, if you pass by garbage on your way to the bus stop everyday after a while you don’t see it anymore – it becomes a normal part of the environment. And, if there are no rubbish bins provided on the street, then dropping that ice cream wrapper on the pavement becomes second nature. 

I got very excited a couple of years ago when the recycling rhetoric was in full swing. I waited and waited for the recycling bins to arrive in my housing area and the mounds of bottles and cans grew and grew until they threatened to takeover my kitchen.  Four years later I was still waiting.

In the beginning there were a few recycling centres in PJ, but that’s not much help if, like me, you live on the other side of town and don’t have a car.  So, much as it aggrieved me to do it, I eventually threw my collection into the neighbourhood skip – there isn’t any house-to-house garbage collection in my part of Ampang Jaya either.  At least bottles and cans are too heavy for the chickens to scatter around the neighbourhood, which is more than can be said for a lot of other stuff that’s thrown into that receptacle!

I’m a great believer in compost so all my organic waste goes into making rich fertile humus for my poor old sandy soil.  Eliminating organic waste from my garbage bin has not only substantially reduced the bulk of my rubbish, but the plants love it too.  Unfortunately some of my neighbours don’t!  The main fear is that snakes (especially cobras) will incubate their eggs in the compost heap and their offspring will invade their homes. I can honestly say that I’ve never seen a sign of a snake of any kind in my compost heap; I should imagine that the heat inside the mound would render the eggs hard-boiled in a matter of hours.  

My immediate next-door neighbours obviously think I’m too lazy to walk to the skip with my rubbish, preferring to leave it in the garden.  What seems to have escaped their attention, as they follow my imagined slothful example and throw their garbage over the fence, is that my stuff’s all ORGANIC.  However, when it comes to plastics I must admit I’m stumped to know what to do. And what about all the other junk? The broken computer, the old TV, the dead toaster, old batteries…the list is endless; all non-biodegradable and some actually toxic.

Of course it would be easy to just blame the local authorities for not being more pro-active, but we create the garbage so we should start taking responsibility for it too. Apart from setting up individual or communal compost heaps and getting involved in gotong royongs we can also try and reduce the amount of garbage we accumulate by not buying over-packaged items and re-using supermarket shopping bags.  In fact we can have endless fun creating inventive ways to recycle trash.

German artist HA Schult is a one-man recycling centre. Since 1996 he's made thousands of people out of household waste.  His trash people have been installed all over the world; from the Pyramids at Giza to the top of the Great Wall of China.

I’m always surprised that recycling hasn’t taken-off in a big way. Apart from the friendly neighbourhood paper lama guys there’s nothing else happening (at least in my area) Rubbish is big business – glass, various metals, plastics, in fact a whole range of waste products can be reused in one form or another.  This trash is worth money. Money is literally been thrown down the drain!

 And speaking of drains, did you know that many of them act as highways for household detergents, cooking and motor oils, heavy metals and a whole range of household effluent?  This all adds up to some pretty exotic and lethal cocktails going into the rivers and sea.  The Sepang river is now a black, fetid, stinking ooze. Dead! Go check it out if you don’t believe me but be warned, you’ll need a gas mask!  Better still, next time you fly to Singapore book a window seat and take a look at the rivers discharging into the Straits of Melaka.  Yellow got, brown got and even black got, but clear? Tak ada lah! There’s so much tanah melayu being dumped into the Straits, courtesy of developers and loggers, that it wouldn’t surprise me if, in twenty-something years time, wanna be illegal Indonesian migrants will be able to sprint across the newly appearing mudflats that appear at low tide.

 If this isn’t enough to leave you gasping, go fill your lungs full of soot, smoke, wood dust and all the other noxious stuff that finds it’s way into the very air we breathe.  Even when the haze gets really bad, the diehard belchers are still on the road and open burning of garbage and the forests continues with gay abandon.  I can’t understand why some people only clean-up their act when threatened with prosecution. Do they have a different air supply than the rest of us? Unpleasant is the only way to describe the air in KL these days.  Last year the pollution got so bad I really started to panic.  I mean what can you do to escape bad air?  Breathing isn’t optional, you can’t really choose not to do it.  I was in Port Dickson for a party recently and was really looking forward to getting some fresh sea air into my over-burdened lungs.  However, just as I hit Lukut I saw three separate plumes of black smoke spewing into the atmosphere from three different locations in PD.  Things like this bring out the militancy in me.  I knew the companies responsible; in fact I drove past them on my way to my friend’s house so I vowed never to buy any of their products ever again. Power to the consumer!

The other way to deal with such flagrant polluters is to report them to the Department of the Environment.  They do take action but are so severely understaffed and under financed that they rely on you and me to be their eyes and ears to some extent. But most of all I hope that the greedy industrialists will realise there’s more to business than profit margins and start adopting a more responsible attitude towards the environment.  I mean it isn’t as if the technology isn’t available because it is, but it’s usually expensive.  Personally I’d be willing to pay a bit more for products if I knew they’d been manufactured in an environmentally friendly way and I guess a lot of other people would too.

The fact that a lot of big businesses are environmentally irresponsible is not only indicative of greed and poor enforcement of environmental laws, it’s also symptomatic of some of the rubbish that the people in power have in their heads.  A lot of people have some very peculiar notions about the environment, which need to be dealt with.  Some of these are due to genuine ignorance, but a lot is based on self-interested nonsense.  A classic example of the sort of thing I’m referring to is the following extract from an interview with Datuk Amar James Wong, which appeared in the Sunday Star on August 11th 1996.  The President of the Sarawak National Party, former State Environment Minister and Mr. Rimbunan Hijau (large timber conglomerate) told the nation: “I have written a book on logging. Logging doesn’t kill trees, shifting cultivation does. You can quote from my book.

What a load of rubbish!

See what I mean? Same old same old. I can't believe how naive I was about the DOE though.  Since then I've decided that a more accurate translation of their acronym would be Destroyers of the Environment. Over the years I've reported various industries to the DOE for various environmental crimes but despite their claim that they give you feedback in 48 hours I've never heard a word from them, ever!  In fact,since I wrote What a Load of Rubbish, almost 15 years ago, the DOE have allowed some very environmentally dodgy projects to materialise. 

And what about the 3R campaign launched by the Housing and Local Government Ministry in the mid 90s that got me all excited in the first place?  Ziltch!  The only real efforts to reuse, reclaim and recycle have been coming from the private sector and they've been having a tough time getting any of the politicians, who make decisions about rubbish, to take their initiatives onboard.  Alam Flora got a huge concession to collect garbage because their tender was based on the 3R concept - it's certainly splashed all over their website - but apart from a few recycling centres in obscure places and pilot schemes in Putrid Jaya and University Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM) their trucks still collect thousands of tons of unsorted waste a day and dump the lot on landfills.  Of course it's also possible they got the multi-gazillion contract for other reasons... Actually does anyone have a fix on how much they've been given so far? I spent a while trying to find out online but couldn't get a ball park figure.

 When I was in Sydney earlier this year I was mega impressed by their way of managing municipal waste.  Households have three bins: one for organics, one for reusables and one for other waste. The collection trucks use an automated arm to grab and empty the content of the bins into the appropriate section of the truck. Simple! So how come we don't have a system like this?  And why, when there's so much talk about renewable energy, is there still so little investment and commitment from the local authorities and the relevant ministries in Waste to Energy technology.  Come on you garbage guys wake up and smell the landfills!  It's the 21st century so get with it! 

No comments: