Circular economy and cyclical waste
The circular economy is a production and consumption framework that promotes the reuse, refurbishment, and recycling of existing resources and goods, thus extending the product life cycle as long as possible (European Parliament, 2015). When a product approaches the end of its life, its materials are recycled wherever possible to produce new goods and value (European Parliament, 2015). It eliminates waste and pollution and circulates products by reusing certain commodities as inputs to extend their lifespan (Wiesmeth, 2021). It is time that Malaysia reverts to structural changes in its industries as proposed by the circular economy model that presents us with practices of reusing resources and refurbishing existing products, to fulfil its commitment in the 2015 Paris Agreement to lower its greenhouse gas emission intensity and the 2050 carbon neutrality goal of the 12th Malaysia Plan (Leong, Platts and Woo, 2022; Phang 2022).
Malaysia and our waste management
Malaysia is confronting waste management issues due to its rapidly increasing cities and population of over 32 million (Holland Circular Hotspot, 2021). In 2021, Malaysians created 38,427 tonnes of rubbish daily, with 82.5% of the waste ending in landfills (Phang, 2022). Furthermore, the COVID-19 pandemic was expected to create additional clinical waste in 2020-2021 (Holland Circular Hotspot, 2021). Malaysia reported that the country was the biggest consumer of used plastics per year in 2019, compared to various Asian countries (Holland Circular Hotspot, 2021). The nation is also one of the leading producers of fossil-fuel plastic goods. The recycling rate was 28.1% in 2019 (Malaysia Investment Development Authority, 2021). However, not all plastic can be recycled, as evidenced by the existence of microplastics in the food chain (Wiesmeth, 2021). The loss of material value in plastics demonstrates poor waste management and has economic ramifications for the nation and the people (Wiesmeth, 2021). The circular bioeconomy is worth investigating when tackling the issue of waste management by utilising Malaysia’s abundant biomass, particularly in Sabah and Sarawak, where palm oil plantations are located (Holland Circular Hotspot, 2021). A biobased source works in harmony with nature and may dissolve naturally in a typical environment, whether on land, sea, or ocean (Malaysia Investment Development Authority, 2021).
Standing as a resource-rich land
Malaysia is bestowed with an abundance of both conventional and renewable energy sources (Sahid, Siang and Peng, 2013). Ironically, our nation’s energy mix of the total primary energy supply has been deteriorating and becoming more unsustainable throughout the years (see Figure 1) (Shadman, Chin and Sakundarini, 2018). Malaysia is increasingly dependent on coal despite its low efficiency and loaded damage to the environment (Kathirgugan, 2021; Salleh, 2022). As of 2018, coals represented 22.3% of our energy mix, up from only 4.2% in 1998 (see Figure 1). Tenaga Nasional Bhd (TNB) generated roughly 66% of the power generated on the peninsula by 2020 using imported coal because Malaysia is not capable of producing coal resources (Salleh, 2022). However, it is still used intensively for the sake of energy security and affordability objectives (Economic Planning Unit, 2022; Kathirgugan, 2021). Based on the latest data, the nation was also a net importer of refined petroleum products, such as fuel oil and motor petrol that power our vehicles (Suruhanjaya Tenaga Malaysia, 2021, 2022). The price of solar energy has been declining over the past two decades, leading to greater potential for its adoption to become one of the best sustainable energy sources that will gradually replace the use of fossil fuels in Malaysia (Lau et al. 2022). Along with continuous efforts of the government, such as The Renewable Energy Act of 2011, the Green Electricity Tariff, and the Virtual Power Purchase Agreement, 18% of the energy utilised by companies in Malaysia last year was green energy, ahead of Vietnam (14%), and Thailand (13%) (Aziz and Liew, 2022).
Figure 1: Malaysia’s energy mix, 1998 vs 2018, illustrated by author (Source: Suruhanjaya Tenaga Malaysia, 2021)
Pointing fingers, “No it’s you, no it’s them!”
According to the current situation, customers blame firms for being unable to deliver environmentally friendly items, while producers blame consumers for failing to recycle owing to a lack of information (Malaysia Investment Development Authority, 2021). The environmentally friendly model may not be in the commercial interest of producers, which means that not all producers are likely to be enthusiastic supporters (Wiesmeth, 2021). The government should create an ecosystem that allows businesses to benefit from the circular economy model, as they will have a more secure and sustainable supply chain because they rely less on finite resources. Policies should align financial institutions’ interests in accelerating circular economy financings, such as providing resources for viable projects, offering insurance products, and developing rating systems that can help improve transparency around sustainability-related business risks (Phang, 2022). It must begin with a rethink of the business model in which all things made are easily recycled, repurposed, or reused while utilising sustainable raw material sources (Malaysia Investment Development Authority, 2021). A favourable business climate for our manufacturing sector, particularly semiconductor and automotive firms, should be followed by more steps targeted at moving to a circular economy.
When there’s a will, there are endless ways
The immense support from information and communication technologies (ICT) has cultivated new models, such as car sharing and bicycle sharing on the consumer end (Wiesmeth, 2021). Recycling behaviour among the general public may be encouraged through the use of social media and the engagement of non-governmental organisations (Wiesmeth, 2021). Artificial intelligence (AI)-based technologies such as smart garbage bins, smart vehicles for rubbish collection, and waste sorting robotics can aid in the management of various waste streams, which could also foster job opportunities for technicians (Wiesmeth, 2021).
3 RRRs… Reduce, Reuse, Recycle
The most efficient strategy to decrease waste is to avoid producing it in the first place (United States Environmental Protection Agency, 2013). Consumers may be familiar with the concept of recycling but lack knowledge of the importance of the other 2 ‘R’s, which are reuse and reduction. Reuse and reduction are both financially and economically beneficial since they allow things to be utilised to their full potential, reducing the quantity of waste that must be recycled or sent to landfills and incinerators. Awareness should be raised to encourage consumers to maintain and donate products such as clothing, tires, appliances and furniture to prevent frequent replacement and further waste, as those products are not easily recyclable (United States Environmental Protection Agency, 2013). Another issue lies within the recycling of e-waste which recycling activities are not keeping up with the amount of e-waste that people are generating each day (Sobri, 2021). The vast majority of e-waste may include poisonous and possibly hazardous elements, not only to the environment but also to human health in general (Sobri, 2021). However, there is a lack of proper infrastructure and guidance, particularly in recycling e-waste. City planners should also build more recycling bins or infrastructure in busy areas. Empirical evidence has shown that convenience improves composting and recycling rates (DiGiacomo et al., 2018; O’Connor et al., 2010; Rosenthal and Linder, 2021).
Let’s expand our horizons, there’s not just a one fits all solution
Many zero-waste initiatives actually contribute to the problem they are trying to solve, according to Professor Shelie Miller, a professor of sustainable systems at the University of Michigan (Eschner, 2020). Reusable recycling bags in replacing single-use plastic bags may not be as eco-friendly as it seems. Note that plastic bags were invented to replace paper bags which were deemed to harm our environment decades ago. Reusable items only save waste if they are reused frequently enough to justify their existence (Eschner, 2020). “We shouldn’t get rid of that,” Miller says. “We just need to broaden that even further.” (Eschner, 2020) Rather than forcing people to accept using recycling bags, alternative solutions (such as zero waste shops) should figure out ways to incentivise people and promote broader inclusion. It requires multiple efforts from different parties to achieve the long-term goal.
Although Malaysia is a pivotal producer of natural resources, the method of dependence on primary commodities export is not a sustainable way of financing Malaysia’s economy. Malaysia still has a long journey towards a strategic and sustainable energy mix. Moreover, post-consumer plastic waste output in Malaysia is expected to be more than one million tonnes (Malaysiakini, 2022). Failure to recover the material results in the loss of 81% of the material value of plastics, and this results in a USD 1.1 billion loss of potential material value to Malaysia’s economy (Malaysiakini, 2022). Looking at the circular economy and the awareness that resources are finite, there should be a way to recycle, reduce and reuse in extracting the maximum value from our natural resource production and consumption. We need newer technology to build a sustainably circular production, which will also create high-value jobs and opportunities. Waste management should not be done as a reaction to laws given by the government. For the consumers, there is a gap between understanding the essentials of 3R and the product life cycle of goods. Finally, there is an education gap, and breaching this can help extend the financial responsibility of our youths to not only be more sustainable, but get the best value for their purchase by using it to the max before replacing it.
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Written by; Sylvia Chen Weng Yan, Alex Chong, Yeoh Jia Xin, Muhammad Hafizuddin Hakim Bin Ruzlisham and Sherilynn Ngerng Siew Fong
Edited By: Angellina Choo