Neil Grundon, deputy chairman of Grundon Waste Management, says some difficult decisions will need to be made if governemnts want to stop their countries becoming “one giant landfill”, after attending a single-use plastic conference in Malaysia.
Earlier this year, it was my privilege to be invited to Malaysia to attend a conference and panel discussion organised by the British Malaysian Chamber of Commerce on the end of single use plastics.
The occasion was part of a full-day programme and exhibition to showcase joint UK-Malaysian efforts in tackling plastic waste and protecting the environment.
One of the highlights was a special reception and screening of the BBC’s Blue Planet II, attended by HRH Prince Edward, Earl of Wessex together with Selangor Princess and environmentalist, Tengku Zatashah binti Sultan Sharafuddin Idris Shah.
We were even treated to a video address by Sir David Attenborough himself, who expressed his concern over the amount of plastic entering our seas, and the urgent need to take action on a global scale.
There were lots of warm words from delegates – both governmental and commercial representatives – talking about ‘zero this’ and ‘zero that’
Among those attending were UK and Malaysian dignitaries, green tech companies from both countries and environmental NGOs, including WRAP.
I was particularly interested in the discussion, which ran in parallel with the exhibition.
There were lots of warm words from delegates – both governmental and commercial representatives – talking about ‘zero this’ and ‘zero that’ and how to get rid of that scourge of modern consumerism, the plastic bag.
On the plus side, I was also pleased to see that good progress was made by the Ministry of Energy, Science, Technology, Environment and Climate Change (MESTECC), in setting up the Malaysia Plastics Pact.
This brings together key stakeholders including businesses, government agencies and civil society members to tackle the plastic waste problem in the country.
Malaysia’s Minister of Energy, Science, Technology, Environment and Climate Change, declared that the pact would ‘complement and drive the country’s efforts in developing a plastic circular economy as outlined in the Malaysia’s Roadmap Towards Zero Single-Use Plastics.’
In a veritable sea of good intent however, I couldn’t help feeling that I was being dragged into a time tunnel, as behind all the green noise was little reference to the real fiscal measures needed to kickstart a recycling industry which perversely finds it cheaper to recycle our plastic bottles rather than their own.
Can it really be right that the Malaysian economy allows the plastic goods it makes for its own market to be sent to landfill; while at the same time importing pre-sorted plastic goods from the UK (most likely made in the Far East in the first place) in order to recycle them and send them back again as new products.
The reality is that there is a huge disconnect between the actual business end of recycling and the infrastructure investment required to deliver a system which meets what we would consider to be an acceptable standard.
Malaysia has around 150 landfills and the average gate fee is only £10 per tonne. Compare that with what we pay in this country to use a landfill – £91.35 per tonne just in tax, let alone the gate fees and other treatment costs.
If they want to stop their countries becoming one giant landfill, then they too will have to make some difficult decisions to increase taxation
The Landfill Tax served a real purpose in bouncing the UK waste industry into finding alternative routes for disposal but in Malaysia, the low tipping fee and plenty of ‘easy’ land space means there is little incentive for commercial enterprises to consider starting a recycling or energy recovery programme.
Why would you look for alternatives when waste can be buried in the ground for next to no cost – except that is, to the environment.
And it is anyone’s guess just how many of those 150 landfills are property regulated or managed with the leachate management systems and gas extraction plants we take for granted.
This is not to throw stones (or plastic bottles) at the Malaysian Government, far from it, and I applaud the steps being taken to move forward.
However, I do think that they and governments around the world must face facts.
If they want to stop their countries becoming one giant landfill, then they too will have to make some difficult decisions to increase taxation in order to develop their fledgling waste management industries.
I know it won’t be popular – try asking the people of Kuala Lumpur if they would be prepared to pay two thirds more tax on their waste bill so the money can be invested in energy from waste and recycling facilities.
Let’s hope everyone heads in the right direction.