Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Waste Seminar part 1

I attended a 2-day seminar last week entitled “Green Technologies on Waste Management: Current Knowledge and Practices”. It was organized by The Waste Management Association of Malaysia (WMAM) and held at the Seri Pacific Hotel next to PWTC. 

WMAM very kindly allowed me in for free accepting that bloggers are part of the media too these days.  So a big thank you to them for that. 

 Unfortunately I missed the opening address, and the keynote speech, arriving just in time for the first speaker of the day from UKM who talked about using artificial intelligence (AI) enhanced automation to separate recycled containers from the garbage instead of the so-called scavengers who currently do this odious and unhealthy job. 

 As he talked about his prototype it was obvious that it will be a long time before this type of innovation will be able to have a significant impact on solving the issue at hand namely: the use of green technology in waste management to eliminate the production of greenhouse gases and to produce renewable energy. This will make a significant contribution to Malaysia’s effort to reduce global warming, as well as improving the environment.

Courtesy of Prof. Hassan Basri

The next speaker from UITM spoke about applying green technology to treat pollutants such as pharmaceutical and personal care products, endocrine modulating chemicals, nano materials and biological metabolites that are now finding their way into our water as a result of continuous and excessive use of improper disposal.  His forte is developing bio-solvents to absorb heavy metals so they can be recovered from contaminated water. During the research they found considerable amounts of PAH in municipal sewage sludge.  Similar research has been going on in Germany and Japan and there’s no doubt that this work is all valuable in the long term but it was all so theoretical yet again. 

 By lunchtime I was feeling slightly depressed by the lack of dynamism in the topics so far, another case of the “same old, same old.” I’m sure some great things will emerge from this research in the future but again, and I can’t over-stress this, we need to take action now!  And while it was interesting to hear about these research projects, there wasn’t any mention of the people who are already using EM (effective microbes) and nano technology to clean-up effluent right now.  I would have thought that a seminar organized by practitioners for practitioners would have had a practical rather than a theoretical focus. But there was still the afternoon session to look forward to.

 The first speaker was from Alam Flora  and she managed to raise my temperature, even though the room was very cold.  Now as far as I know, one of the reasons that Alam Flora got the concession to collect garbage from Selangor, Kelantan Pahang, Terengganu and the Federal Territories of K.L. and Putra Jaya back in 1995 was because they were in line with the ministry’s 3R policy to reduce, reuse, recycle.  So what have they been doing since then? Not much if this speaker’s presentation was anything to go by. The first part concentrated on different types of green technology and their various applications but when it came to the contribution Alam Flora was making it would appear nothing much has changed since they took over the concession almost 15 years ago.   

Courtesy of Sarifah Yaccob

They have set up pilot recycling schemes in Putrajaya and on the UKM campus but apart from that a lot of the recycling that is taking place is being done by privately funded initiatives, not Alam Flora. She did, almost dismissively, mention that Recycle Energy are generating electricity from RDF (refuse derived fuel in Semenyih but it wasn’t clear that this was a private initiative.  And anyway why is she talking about treatment when her company is responsible for collection?  Why not tell us what innovations are taking place in that department. But it was when she talked about the school educational programmes that I began to warm up.

Courtesy of Sarifah Yaccob

Now here’s the thing. Why does Alam Flora need to do this when schools are already staffed by qualified teachers?  Surely it wouldn’t be too difficult for this type of environmental awareness to be built into the curriculum, would it?  This would free Alam Flora to do what we need them to do, namely: to provide us with the bags or containers to store our separated waste in, and to have a fleet of trucks that keep it separated on it’s way to the recycle centre.

 The thing that really inflamed me was this ideas that it’s the public’s fault that more recycling isn’t going on. At present only 5% of our waste is being recycled but whose fault is that?  This idea that we’re all too stupid to figure out how to recycle is incredibly insulting. I agree that there is a need for a public campaign to create more awareness about how we manage our waste but this isn’t Alam Flora’s role, is it? 

I thought they were garbage collectors.  And whilst the residents and other garbage producing inhabitants of Putrajaya are enjoying the illusion that all’s well on the garbage front, many of the rest of us don’t get our rubbish collected at all.  I have to drive mine 10 kms to the nearest town and deposit it in an open communal skip by the roadside. In fact, since I came to live in Malaysia in 1988 I’ve only ever lived in 2 places that did have garbage collection and I don’t think my experience is uncommon. 

 This theme, that it’s the public’s fault, was repeated several times throughout the seminar by many of the speakers and participants, I felt like screaming. How on earth can we ever hope to start trying to solve our environmental problems when the so-called experts can’t seem to get beyond covering their own rear ends for a job badly done.  What’s blatantly missing is commitment, not only from the public but from the waste concessionaires, and the government too. They know how much money has been ploughed into waste management and they can also see -when they step outside the rarified and sanitized zone of Putrajaya - that we haven’t made much progress in the last 20 years or so.  The very fact that they are still talking about landfills when waste to energy technology is already up and running is, in itself, a measure of their lack of sincerity.  So I’m left asking what’s going on? Why don’t people take pride in their work and decide to do a good job instead of a mediocre one?

 The Alam Flora presentation was followed by a paper on converting waste to bio-fuels by a speaker from UTM who has been doing research into extracting bio-gas from waste. He said biotechnology was a useful strategy to adopt when treating sewage and palm oil waste but not efficient for solid waste.

Oxidation pond at Frangipani Hotel, Langkawi

Organic corn growing in the hotel's vegetable garden.

I was cheered up a little by the presenter from a hotel in Langkawi that is taking care of its own dirty business by composting their organic waste and treating their own wastewater. I had seen this presentation at the national waste seminar I attended in September so decided to do my bit to reduce my carbon footprint by leaving before  the notorious KL jam.