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In the dumps

THE saying goes that there’s money to be made from rubbish — about RM52 million a year, for removing waste from residents’ homes in Petaling Jaya.

On the surface, the waste-management system is simple. Contractors move around collecting waste from urban areas and transport it to a landfill, far away from city folks. Once it is out of sight, it is out of mind.

But this simplistic system is increasingly taxing the government as urban areas become bigger and denser in terms of population. Suddenly, the cost of throwing rubbish becomes a very expensive exercise as new landfills are opened up further and further away from urban areas. Dump trucks end up having to travel a great distance to unload rubbish at authorised landfill sites, through heavy traffic and  tolled highways.

Urban debris (© Craig Jewell/
As urbanites discard rubbish without a second thought, the waste-disposal industry is turning to less-legal means to dispose of the waste they collect. They are resorting to using illegal and very hazardous dumpsites at the fringe of townships or along heavily forested highways that will not raise the suspicions of the authorities.

Proper landfills

The official landfills in Selangor that I am aware of are Jeram Sanitary Landfill near Kuala Selangor (about 50km from Kuala Lumpur); the Bukit Tagar Landfill (near Batu Caves); the Dengkil Landfill (near KLIA); the Kuang Landfill (near Rawang); and Sungai Sedu Landfill (in Banting). There are also a few other smaller landfills used by other local councils.

The Jeram Sanitary Landfill charges a fee of RM50 per tonnage of industrial solid waste, while Bukit Tagar charges RM64 per tonnage and is very selective in the type of industrial waste they accept. The Dengkil, Kuang and Sungai Sedu landfills charge RM30 per tonne.

The distance between major urban areas and the new landfill sites means higher operating costs for contractors who have to shell out more for fuel and toll charges. It also leads to fewer trips to and from the areas that the contractors service.

Illegal dumpsites

The rising costs of dumping legally has spawned a demand for illegal dumpsites. In a survey around Shah Alam and Klang (done on 26 May 2008), I found five such dumpsites that were just off the road.

Illegal dumpsite along a forested highway (Pic by KW Mak)
It was difficult getting a snapshot of the illegal activities, as each site had thuggish men on the lookout for authorities.

The sites are mostly hidden, although a few smaller dumpsites were visible from the main road, provided the driver actively searches for them. Otherwise, the copse of trees provides excellent camouflage for the illegal activities.

These sites are the preferred dumping grounds because they charge cheaper fees (RM10 to RM40 per truckload instead of per tonnage), and the shorter distance from urban areas allows lorry drivers to make more trips.

These illegal landfills are situated about 45 minutes from urban areas one-way, compared with the 90 minutes travel time to proper landfills. So cost-savings are considerable for operators.

The illegal dumping business has shifted a bit after being spotlighted by the media in the past year. Operators now look for a site and then open it to lorry drivers for about three to six months, before closing the site and moving to a new one.

Even more worrying is that some lorry drivers don’t even bother dumping the rubbish at these illegal sites; they just throw it at river banks or dump it along the roads, leaving the local councils to clean up the mess later.

Rubbish dumped by the side of the road by unscrupulous lorry drivers
(Pic by KW Mak)
And just to get an idea of how much removing waste properly costs, the Petaling Jaya City Council (MBPJ) paid Alam Flora RM44 million for 145,000 tonnes for 2007. The budget for 2008 is RM47.5 million, while the budget for 2009 is RM52 million, assuming the landfills remain at their present site.

Costs considerations play a major role in influencing government policy. A recent Selangor government decision to close down the Sungai Sedu Landfill due to nearby resident protests was reversed due to the additional cost that local councils would incur if the decision went ahead.

Coordinating government departments

There is also a lack of coordination in the state government in tackling the issue of waste disposal. Local councils are tasked with removing rubbish from door-to-door, while the sites where the waste is to be deposited is managed by the state.

Enforcement of illegal dumping ought to fall under the local councils, but the council officers have to catch the person in the act to take action. Once the rubbish is dumped indiscriminately, where it is dumped determines who is responsible for removing it.

For rubbish dumped along the roadside or in drains, the duty to clean up falls on the local council. If it is dumped at a riverbank, the Department of Irrigation and Drainage (DID) has to clean up the mess.

Illegal dumpsites are an environmental hazard and fall under the privy of the Department of Environment (DOE), while the cost of removing the rubbish when such a site is discovered has to be borne by either the local authority or the state.

Another illegal dumpsite (Pic by KW Mak)
There is also the matter of not so illegal dumpsites, which are authorised by local councils for the dumping of dry waste like construction debris, but which get used as a dumpsite for all manner of garbage, like the case in Bukit Lanchong. The council in charge slapped the landowner with a fine, but the garbage remains.

To set up a proper landfill, the DOE must study the suitability of the site for about six months to a year, checking on things like the weather, soil conditions and nearby water sources that could potentially be polluted.

Managing landfills

Before anyone has the bright idea of simply covering a landfill and converting it into a housing development, the MBPJ has already done this at the old Kelana Jaya Landfill, which was opened in 1990 and closed six years later.

The (then) Petaling Jaya Municipal Council approved a housing development to be built over the landfill, without ensuring proper procedures for landfill closure were followed. Proper procedure requires a contractor to manage and provide treatment for the site, to ensure that the environment is not polluted with leachate and dangerous gases.

The authorities said they approved the Kelana Idaman housing project as there were no regulations on such projects over landfills prior to 1998, when the guidelines for housing projects were tightened. The Kelana Idaman housing development comprises double-storey terrace houses and low-rise shop apartments.

Although there are no immediate dangers, a Universiti Malaya study on the area indicates soil contamination (the study recommends that edible plants should not be planted) and intermittent release of gases, and shows photos of severe corrosion in metal objects.

(© Valeria Cantone/Dreamstime)

Waste management is a complicated problem that requires a lot of coordination from the various government departments, and it needs to be solved. Otherwise, the Selangor state government may end up with numerous pockets of useless land in the countryside filled with rubbish and possibly contaminating our water catchment areas.

MBPJ councillor KW Mak wants to go on a holiday. Unfortunately, there are far too many issues that need to be attended to.

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One Response to “In the dumps”

  1. carolynjlau says:

    It would be so, so, so, so, so encouraging all round if Alam Flora or our state governments used technology currently available to set up methane mills that would turn methane from the organic waste into electricity and sold it back to the electricity grid, even if our electricity is cheap. Not great immediate financial returns but instead excellent improved waste disposal and responsible stewardship of our land and resources.

    So many many problems would be solved by recycling our organic waste into energy.

    For starters, won’t the landfills then consist of inorganic material and make for more stable and speedier redevelopment?

    These mills do not cost much in relation to current budgets for garbage disposal, and with such positive long term effects, can the Selangor government please lead the way?

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