Space running out for dumpsites
Writer: Gan Pei Ling
Published: Fri, 03 Feb 2012
Every time a garbage truck drives past, most of us would hold our breath, but have you stopped and wondered where the truck delivers the rubbish to? And did you know that local governments spend millions annually to transport waste collected from households and traders to landfills throughout Selangor?
People in Selangor and Kuala Lumpur jointly throw away an average of 7,375 tonnes of trash a day – equivalent to the weight of at least 1,400 Borneo pygmy elephants. These include recyclables and organic waste that the public has yet to get used to separating.
In addition, the amount of domestic waste we generate is expected to increase at an annual rate of 2%, but our landfills have a finite life span and land in Selangor is running scarce.
How long can our landfills last and what happens when the state runs out of places to bury our trash? Selangor Times spoke to landfill operators and state executive councillor for local government Ronnie Liu to find out.
Millions spent to manage “trash”
Leachate treatment plant in Jeram.
Selangor spends RM300 million to RM400 million annually to collect and transport domestic waste to landfills. This does not include the tipping fee local councils pay to operators to bury and treat rubbish.
The bulk of our domestic waste goes to three sanitary landfills – Bukit Tagar in Hulu Selangor, Jeram in Kuala Selangor, and Tanjung Duabelas in Kuala Langat.
Only sanitary landfills are equipped with proper facilities to treat landfill gas and prevent leachate from contaminating groundwater and rivers.
Bukit Tagar is the largest sanitary landfill in Selangor. It deals with 2,500 tonnes of garbage from Kuala Lumpur, Selayang and private waste collectors daily.
Operated by KUB-Berjaya Enviro since April 2005, the site processes domestic waste at a cost of RM28.80 to RM49 per tonne, says its managing director Chock Eng Tah.
Spread over 700 acres of land with the capacity to bury 120 million metric tonnes of waste, it has a life span of 50 to 60 years.
Meanwhile, Jeram takes in around 2,000 tonnes of waste a day from six local authorities – Petaling Jaya City Council, Shah Alam City Council, Subang Jaya Municipal Council, Klang Municipal Council, Ampang Jaya Municipal Council and Kuala Selangor District Council – and private waste collectors.
The landfill is managed by Worldwide Holdings Bhd (WHB), a subsidiary of state investment arm Selangor Development Corporation.
WHD environment division head Zamri Abdul Rahman says local councils pay the company a tipping fee of RM36 per tonne while private waste collectors are charged RM50 per tonne.
Originally, the Jeram landfill was expected to last 16 years with its capacity to bury eight million tonnes cubic metre worth of trash.
“However, we’ve filled up 3.5 million tonnes cubic metre air space since 2007. It probably can only last another five to six years,” says the environmental engineer.
Zamri adds that while its workers do try to recover recyclables sent to its landfill, they can only recover around one per cent from the waste due to limited resources.
“Recyclables like plastic bottles take up a lot of landfill space, our workers do try to separate them but it’s more efficient if the public practise recycling at home,” he says.
The recycling rate among local councils varies. The Subang Jaya Municipal Council, for example, recycled a quarter of its waste in 2010, but others like Petaling Jaya City Council and Ampang Jaya Municipal Council do not keep a record.
Once the landfill in Jeram is full, transportation costs are expected to rise as the six local authorities will either have to send their waste further up north to the Bukit Tagar landfill or down south to Kuala Langat.
WHB operates another sanitary landfill in Tanjung Dua Belas, Kuala Langat.
It handles rubbish collected from the Sepang Municipal Council, Kuala Langat District Council, Perbadanan Putrajaya, Kuala Lumpur International Airport and private waste collectors currently.
Opened in January 2010, Zamri says Tanjung Duabelas still has plenty of air space as less than half a million tonne is filled out of its 9.2 million cubic metre capacity.
A few local authorities like the Sabak Bernam District Council and Hulu Selangor District Council also operate their own landfills.
Alternatives to landfills
Nonetheless, landfills are not a permanent solution to escalating rubbish woes as we do not have infinite land to bury our waste.
Singapore used to rely on landfills in the 1960s and 1970s to bury their solid waste, but due to space constraints the island has built four incinerators or waste-to-energy plants over the years to reduce its waste volume.
Aerial view of leachate treatment plant at Jeram sanitary landfill, Kuala Selangor.
In 2001, Putrajaya proposed to build a RM1.5 billion ringgit incinerator in Broga, but concerned over the public health and environmental risks involved, residents took the government to court. The project was eventually called off in 2007.
State executive councillor Ronnie Liu tells Selangor Times the state is studying solid waste management strategies and technologies employed in other countries such as Singapore, Japan and China.
But he says Selangor is unlikely to emulate Singapore as its incinerators do not single out the recyclables.
“We’re looking for the most economical and environmentally-friendly technologies. For waste-to-energy plant, we’re more inclined towards those that separate the recyclables before incineration,” says Liu.
Examples he cites include those in Japan and China, where garbage is separated into recyclable, burnable and non-burnable items.
The Klang Municipal Council visited one of the cleanest cities in China, Xiamen, last December and is looking into building a RM150 million incinerator.
Zamri says Selangor will probably have to employ a combination of methods, including composting organic waste, recycling and waste-to-energy plants to handle domestic waste in future.
“The state has commissioned us to do preliminary studies on the alternatives available and we’ve briefed them on the cost and feasibility of each option,” he says.
The waste management expert notes that landfill is still the cheapest means of disposing of waste at RM36 per tonne compared to incineration, which may cost RM200 per tonne.
In addition, landfill is still needed to bury the ash, but the process of combustion will reduce the volume of waste dramatically by 95 per cent.
When asked about the release of toxic gases such as dioxin from incinerators, Zamri says it can be mitigated by high-temperature burning.
“Landfills or incinerators, any waste disposal method comes with environmental risks. Landfills without proper facilities may leak leachate underground and contaminate groundwater. Illegal dumpsites often catch fire [due to the release of methane gas from the rotting waste].
“But all this can be prevented with proper engineering methods,” he says.
As the population in Selangor, especially Klang Valley, rises, Zamri says the amount of waste we generate is projected to increase at an annual rate of two per cent.
For now, Selangor can attempt to prolong the life span of existing landfills by encouraging the public to recycle and compost their organic waste. But if the current trend of indiscriminate dumping were to continue, the state would have to make the call sooner whether to build incinerators to dispose of our mounting garbage.
Ultimately, it is in the ratepayers’ own interests to recycle, compost organic waste and reduce the amount of trash they throw away daily, or they would have to pay an increasing amount of money for local councils to handle their waste.
Incinerators / Waste-to-energy plants
Landfill compactor in Jeram.
The construction of incinerators is often a thorny subject. Residents do not want it near their neighbourhoods while environmentalists are concerned with air pollution.
Not all incinerators are designed to generate electricity from combustion except for waste-to-energy plants.
European countries like Denmark, Sweden and Germany as well as Asian countries like Japan and Singapore have adopted waste-to-energy plants to handle domestic waste and produce power.
However, these countries implement strict regulations to compel operators to eliminate public health and environmental risks such as the release of toxic gases.
Like landfills, incinerators have a limited life span. Depending on model, it can run for 15 to 30 years.