Improper Management of Hazardous Waste – It’s A Global Crisis

On 6th March 2019, tons of hazardous waste were illegally disposed into Kim Kim River, Pasir Gudang, Malaysia. As a result, 975 students in the vicinity developed signs and symptoms of respiratory disease due to chemical poisoning.1

Poor management of hazardous waste can lead to environmental pollution, injuries, and adverse health risks. Children’s exposure to hazardous waste may cause serious acute and chronic health problems due to their higher vulnerability to the toxic effects of chemicals. 

In April 2020, CNN also reported a discovery of 110 containers of illegally dumped toxic waste at the Port of Tanjung Pelepas in Johor Bahru, in what authorities in Malaysia called “the biggest finding of its kind” in the country’s history, according to state media Bernama.

Inside was 1,864 tonnes of electric arc furnace dust – a hazardous by-product of steel production, containing toxic elements such as lead and chromium. They were brought into the country from Romania and falsely declared as concentrated zinc, officials said. This became an Interpol investigation. 2

What’s causing the sudden influx of illegal waste?

In 2018, China imposed a ban on plastic waste imports in an attempt to clean up its environment. Since then, many countries have looked for an alternative dumping ground for their trash, thus creating problems for many countries including Malaysia, Philippines and Cambodia. 

To limit irresponsible dumping, 187 countries added plastic to the Basel Convention last year, a treaty that regulates the movement of hazardous materials from one country to another. But the problem has continued regardless.

The Environmental Quality Act 1974 is Malaysia’s maiden environmental legislation. It primarily relates to the prevention, abatement, control of pollution and enhancement of the environment. To date, there are no fewer than 40 legislations with numerous regulations, rules and orders enacted for the purpose of environmental protection in Malaysia. 

In April of 2021, the Malaysian government proposed a RM15 million fine for scheduled waste pollution.3 This is because in the event of pollution, local councils have to suspend the operation of water treatment plants and water operators have to deploy water tankers to provide water supply to residents.

The Department of Environment Malaysia’s Hazardous Substances Division does not allow the import of hazardous waste including electronic waste into the country. It is also the policy of the government of Malaysia not to allow hazardous waste to be exported out of Malaysia; except for recovery in an overseas facility if local recovery facilities do not have the capability and capacity to carry out such activity.4

It has become a global crisis.

Ever increasing population growth, urbanisation and economic development are exacerbating the increase in quantities of waste that are overburdening existing waste-management systems. Waste management is one of the most complex and cost-intensive public services, absorbing large chunks of municipal budgets even when organised and operated properly.

Public waste systems in major cities cannot keep pace with the urban expansion and rapid industrialisation happening in countries that have not developed proper systems to deal with hazardous and special wastes.

Even in countries with proper waste management systems, simply collecting and disposing of waste out of sight is no solution. In waste management, there is no such thing as ‘throwing away’. 

Today’s ‘away’ might be your child’s backyard tomorrow or, worse, might have already impaired the health of the next generation. A lot of the waste that we discard can be prevented by changing the design of a product, producing more with fewer resources, reusing, recycling and so on. However, there will always be some waste that cannot be prevented and will require proper handling.

As the crisis unfolds, there are significant opportunities for organising the waste sector, with all its complexities, in a way that is more economically, environmentally and socially sustainable. 

Indeed, if handled properly, waste management has huge potential to turn problems into solutions and to lead the way towards sustainable development through the recovery and reuse of valuable resources; the creation of new business and employment opportunities, reduced emissions of greenhouse gases from waste management operations, such as landfills; and conversion of waste to energy.

The benefits are huge, for both climate and business. 

A 2010 United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP) report showed that, in Northern Europe, recycling one tonne of paper or aluminium saves more than 600kg and 10,000kg of CO2 equivalent respectively. And that is not all. A 2009 UNEP report revealed there is 65 times more gold in one tonne of old mobile phones than the five grammes in a tonne of ore. Those who work in the UDS$410 billion waste sector already understand the great potential of sound waste management.5 

So, let’s consider waste not as a problem, but as an opportunity to recover and convert resources, a paradigm shift that is gaining increasing currency. Whatever your perspective, there is no time to waste in tackling this global crisis.

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