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Friday, May 6, 2016, 12:02

Cycle of shame

By Pearl Liu in Hong Kong

Effective recycling of waste can be a steep learning curve but is essential to handle Asia’s growing garbage problem

Cycle of shame

Jakarta has so much rubbish that it is running out of disposal space.

The capital of Indonesia, Southeast Asia’s biggest economy, generates a staggering 10,000 tons of waste every day, waste that is dumped in a giant landfill on the outskirts of the city. Untold tons of garbage never make it to the landfill but end up in and along the Ciliwung River, which flows through the giant urban area. Millions of local residents live along the river’s now-dirty banks.

By one estimate, the equivalent of seven soccer fields of waste ends up in the river each day. Indonesia is now second only to China as the biggest contributor of plastic waste in the world’s oceans.

Indonesia is representative of what is happening across Southeast Asia. The region’s giant piles of waste are growing, along with the region’s population and its penchant for consumption. Recycling is minimal and there is little awareness of its importance.

Not only is this garbage jeopardizing the soil, rivers and human health but it is also becoming a barrier to economic development.

“We are embarrassed that we are one of the world’s worst ocean polluters,” said R Sudirman, waste management director at Indonesia’s Ministry of Environment and Forestry, at a national seminar on waste management last October.

“Actually, we want to declare a national state of emergency for waste because garbage is everywhere.”

As of 2015, the average Indonesian citizen produced 0.7 kilograms of waste every day. With a population of 250 million people, that means 175,000 tons of waste was created each day. That adds up to 64 million tons every year, according to data from the ministry.

Just 1.9 percent of all this waste is recycled. Most recycling programs carried out by community-based or non-governmental organizations have failed due to a lack of public awareness.

Lisa Christensen, founder of EcoVision Asia, a regional environment education organization, explained: “People were used to using natural substances to wrap their products, for example leaves. When it comes to plastic, they do not know how to deal with it.”

She added that people would typically just follow their pre-existing pattern of throwing their plastic waste into the river, burning it or burying it in the sand.

The greatest damage, she said, comes from plastic entering the ocean. Eaten by fish, it will eventually enter the food chain, damaging everyone’s health.

According to the World Bank, as much as 440 million tons of waste is generated annually across the region. This adds up to 36.7 percent of the garbage collected worldwide.

East Asia and the Pacific region generate around 270 million tons of garbage per year. The Chinese mainland alone makes up around 70 percent of this regional total.

Jonathan Wong Woon-chung, a professor of the department of biology at Hong Kong Baptist University, said: “Overall, most countries are struggling across Asia and the major reason for that is governments do not have a strong policy. For example, (in the Chinese mainland), currently there is no mandatory separation regulation. As a result, people will be like, ‘if I want to do it, I do it’.”

This, he said, has led people to behave in a more or less traditional way, which involves packing all waste together and dumping it without separation.

“Authorities, for example in India, need to change their mentality. Waste management means separation and recycling instead of building more landfills or more incinerators. Many officials still believe that what they need is just facility and equipment to handle the waste.”

India, in particular, has a problem with waste disposal. The country generates about 60 million tons of trash every year. New Delhi alone generates about 9,000 tons of solid waste and most of that is dumped into four landfill sites.

According to a 2011 report by India’s Central Pollution Control Board, New Delhi needs at least 263 hectares of landfill space, four times the sites’ current capacities.

Cycle of shame
An Indonesian man fishes at the garbage-filled Ciliwung river in Jakarta. The equivalent of seven soccer fields of waste ends up in the river each day. (AFP)

India’s Centre for Science and Environment also reports that only 15 percent of household waste in the country is recycled.

Perhaps more telling is not only the lack of awareness in developing countries like Indonesia, India and China — and smaller countries like Cambodia — where infrastructure is not yet mature, but also in more developed economies like Hong Kong and Singapore.

The domestic recycling rate fell to 19 percent in Singapore last year and over the past five years Hong Kong has gradually been recycling less and less.

Only 2.05 million tons of waste was recycled in Hong Kong in 2014. This was 5 percent less than in 2012 and 43 percent less than in 2010. Last year, local volunteers at 27 sites in Hong Kong collected an average of 391 pieces of debris from every 5-meter stretch of beach.

“We all imagine that the city should be in a higher league as we are such a wealthy place with so much resources and intelligence, but unfortunately we are quite far behind,” said Christensen of Eco-Vision Asia.

“However, I am quite optimistic about the situation changing because Hong Kong has launched a billion-dollar recycling fund. That could help develop the recycling industry. We are hoping to see some results from that.”

The HK$1 billion (US$129 million) recycling fund was launched late last year. If nothing else, it should signal a push toward greater awareness.

Across Southeast Asia, there are a number of programs that could make a difference.

The Mother Earth Foundation, a non-governmental organization in the Philippines, has started a pilot zero-waste program in some barangays, the lowest level of government in the country. The foundation is working with some local officials.

“At the beginning, it is very difficult because local people do not understand segregation (of waste) and why we need it. We have to knock door-to-door and teach them how to do it step by step. The education process took us about eight months to one year,” said Sonia Mendoza, chairperson of Mother Earth Foundation.

“Changing mindsets is difficult.”

The hard work has paid off in some areas. Barangay Fort Bonifacio, located in Taguig City, Metro Manila, was the first city the foundation rolled out the program to in 2012. It has since said goodbye to tons of litter and turned an old dump site into a materials recovery facility.

Mendoza added that the foundation has signed agreements with a number of barangays and is “planning to extend the program to five to 10 cities in Metro Manila in the next couple of years”.

In Malaysia, since last September, households are required by law to separate garbage into paper, plastic, other recyclables and general waste or face fines of 1,000 ringgit ($254).

“People need to change their lifestyles,” said Abdul Rahman Dahlan, Minister of Urban Wellbeing, Housing and Local Government. “They need to recycle, they need to reduce household consumption. Awareness on the reuse, reduce and recycle or ‘3R’ program is still very low.”

Christensen said that she has observed a visible change in terms of awareness and education.

“That is a good sign. But we need to turn the awareness into action. We are not quite there yet, in terms of moving from the level of awareness to how we should act,” she added.

There are other examples of successful programs.

Taiwan now has one of the highest household recycling rates in the world, at roughly 46 percent. In 1997 it set up a fund to encourage recycling and reduce waste, and both producers and importers now pay a fee based on the cost of collecting and recycling.

South Korea and Japan have also put programs in place that could act as a template for other nations across the region. But concerns remain about the speed at which awareness is being raised.

“I would say the government is not doing enough. The community lacks education to let everyone know the importance of recycling,” said Wong of Hong Kong Baptist University. “All these add up to (Asia) not moving very fast.”

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