Waste Management and Recycling: Is Our Effort Going to Waste?

By Jovin Hurry

The Waste Management Symposium 2013 held on 2 July at Max Atria, Singapore Expo, got several participants to question whether what countries in the region have been doing in managing their waste is enough and impactful, given the increasing level of difficulty of inter-related waste issues in an overcrowded planet.

The experts threw around big numbers. The global industry of 4 billion tons of waste and 1.2 billion tons of household waste has a US$420 billion turnover. Around 10 million tons of plastics are floating as ocean litter. Nearly 70% of the growth of megacities is happening without proper urban planning. The World Bank estimates we need US$40 billion today to handle waste management.

The tough questions need to be asked. We need to define national strategies, responsibilities and required administration areas. Our economic models must be reviewed. We must check whether the technologies used are the right one. Can we be innovative in terms of funding? For example, climate change mechanisms can be looked at to fund waste management structures in developing countries, a point rightfully brought up by Mr. David Newman, President of the International Solid Waste Association.

The waste management performance of Asian countries differs tremendously. Experts handling the fledgling systems can learn that the prerequisites for success are infrastructure, capability, planning, legislation, technology (not necessarily high tech) and finance – for set-up, operations and maintenance.

Some businesses present in the audience were apprehensive. Why? After all, business opportunities are abound in Indonesia, e.g. in technical assistance, collection and transportation, and solid waste treatment facility. In Indonesia, every city plans to have a master plan for solid waste management. Malaysia opens windows on consultancy, capacity building and training, and operation and maintenance services.

In fact, the businesses feared that after all has been said and done, more will be said than done. The Q&A session revealed the thorns pricking the well intentioned businesses. Mr. Darrell Farley, Country Director of Singapore EnviroSolutions & Consulting showed how big the gap is between the ministries and what is seen on the ground. Ms. Seri Bebassari, Chairperson of Indonesia Solid Waste Association shared how the lack of political will and low budget is clamping them down. Mr. Ho De Leong, Chairman of Waste Management Association Malaysia stressed a few times why businesses must enter the country with “perseverance and patience”, due to the political differences between the local and federal government.

Hence, even after we know what the waste problems are and what solutions would fill the gaps, we still need to dance to the country’s tune. We need to find the right partner and understand the political system to find our way through, which consumes more time and money. It has proven to have taken years for some businesses to find their feet, only for them to leave because the wait was too long, and the same music played on.

This human challenge gets extended to the new and rising electronic waste issue nowadays. Mr. Patrick Wiedemann, CEO of Reverse Logistics Group explained clearly and convincingly how much a change of mindset is what is needed. There is no regulation in Asia. Europe has 27 different regulations. There is little motivation in general to take waste back. Few are looking at the product lifecycle from cradle to cradle.

Perhaps it is time for Asian countries to look beyond the borders in a world becoming overpopulated and more and more interconnected, happening mostly here in Asia. They all share a common fate in this region, a fate that demands new forms of regional cooperation. They operate in a unified economy but with divided national differences, and are shouting out for appropriate waste management solutions for a good lifestyle. Perhaps making it less operationally difficult for neighbours to come and help may be a good step to take.

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