Up close and personal with trash

Up close and personal with trash
Trash for recycling.
PHOTO: AFP

Until recently, I smugly considered myself a conscientious and knowledgeable greenie.

Two months ago, our maid returned home on an emergency and the family has had to do all the household chores.

That includes clearing the huge laundry basket, which acts as our recycling bin where we put our plastic, paper and glass discards.

When the maid was doing it, I assumed she knew how to separate the items and place them in different bags for the garbage collectors to take for recycling.

Now that I am sorting the trash, I have discovered how difficult it is to separate the waste intelligently.

For example, are all plastics recyclable? I search for the recycling symbol and often it can't be found. So do I send such stuff for recycling or not?

As for glass bottles, do I remove the caps and labels? Paper and cardboard may seem straightforward enough but not if they are coated or have bits of plastic attached like tissue boxes.

Do I rip them off first? Do I wash out my milk cartons? And what do I do with polystyrene and foam boxes?

I also started thinking about where my separated waste would actually end up - do the garbage collectors take it to recycling centres or to landfills after all?

Landfills. In less wasteful times, burying our garbage seemed like a good idea. Not anymore.

Landfills are ugly, stinking eyesores that produce global-warming methane gas and leach toxins into the soil, which can contaminate ground water.

Many countries realised that long ago and started solid waste management systems to cut down on the amount of waste generated and recycle as much as possible.

So it is good that our government is finally enforcing the Solid Waste and Public Cleansing Management Act 2007, although I don't understand why there was a delay of eight years.

Solid Waste and Solid Cleansing Management Corp (SWCorp) chief executive Ab Rahim Md Noor said that compulsory waste separation would start in September in six states: the Federal Territory comprising Putrajaya and Kuala Lumpur, Pahang, Malacca, Negri Sembilan, Kedah and Perlis.

That's just two months away and according to him, "every family member should know how to do it and dispose of household waste properly".

SWCorp is all set to go. It has appointed a company to collect garbage in the six states whose workers would observe and note down households that failed to comply, according to Ab Rahim, who also warned that non-compliance could get offenders fined up to 1,000 ringgit (S$360).

Fines will only begin on Jan 1, 2016, said Urban Wellbeing, Housing and Local Government Deputy Minister Halimah Mohamed Sadique, to give time to "increase public awareness on the implementation of the Act". What offenders will get are warning letters.

Well, if the law puts the onus on citizens to sort properly, then it's imperative that they know what they are in for.

They must be given good, clear information on how to do it, which is not impossible as the Swedes, Japanese, South Koreans and Taiwanese have shown.

In Taiwan, Japan and South Korea, refuse sorting is an exact science and the municipal councils in charge take great pains to inform residents on what can be recycled.

Nagoya's Guide to Sorting Recyclables and Garbage has nine categories, while Yokohama distributes a 16-page booklet listing 10 categories covering more than 500 items. (This information is available online.)

They separate food waste from recyclables and enforce a volume-based trash collection fee.

Fines, public shaming and civic responsibility are used very effectively to ensure compliance.

To be fair, these countries started decades ago using a combination of factors to create what Japanese environmental consultant Kanji Tamamushi described as a "closed loop economy", where the primary aim is to reduce the amount of waste going into landfills and reuse materials in new products.

They did it through legislation, education, efficient collection of sorted waste products and by investing in state-of-the-art facilities to reuse and recycle, and clean incinerator technology to burn instead of burying the rest.

I doubt we are anywhere near a closed loop but rather at the beginning of a loose string.

So far, we have a law which needs mass education and awareness for it to work - which is sorely lacking.

Even if we are starting out "simple" - by sorting according to the Ministry's categories of plastic, paper, cardboard, glass, metal, food waste, lump waste and farm waste - based on my own limited experience, there is still a lot to learn to get it right.

(I have no idea what lump waste is and only a vague idea about farm waste.)

Halimah said there was more information on her ministry's website (www.kpkt.gov.my). I decided to look there, thinking there would be a Nagoya or Yokohama kind of guide.

But no, there is nothing there, although there is detailed information on the ministry's staff dress code down to what shoes, jewellery and handbag size are permitted.

Oh, and no exposed midriffs, so saris are a definite no-no.

There was a link from the ministry's website to SWCorp's site and from there, I finally landed on www.3rforlife.com. What I found left me near speechless.

There is a very poor attempt to explain what the 3Rs (Reduce, Reuse, Recycle) are.

I can't bring myself to call it "information" because they are mere one-liners of gobbledygook trying to pass off as English.

The tagline is: "Lets Reduce, Reuse and Recycle - It's Worth!"

Why is it worth it? Well, under the "Reduce" topic we are told: "Waste reduction can be started at home with a very simple way, the modifications to the way we shop. Little change can have a real impact on reducing waste posoitif and how our lives."

Under "Recycle", you get "advice" like "Many different ways based on recycling material. Most item can be recycled such as paper, plastics and glass. Items such as furniture, electrical appliances, building materials, vehicles can also be recycled by type and specific process".

And here's some really useful stuff: "Provide recycle container. Provide container to put item that can be recycled. Ensure that the container can be seen easily."

Is this for real? Most households don't even own a rubbish bin and many even hang their trash bags on nearby branches. Now they need to provide their own recycling containers?

Does SWCorp really think sorting out household waste is that easy and straightforward?

Does every family member really know how to do it and dispose of household waste properly, as claimed by Ab Rahim? Did I miss something? Maybe I did. After all, I live in Selangor.

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