Building incinerators is key to a sustainable waste management

By Jamari Mohtar


IN August 2005, the Malaysia’s National Strategic Plan (NSP) for Solid Waste Management envisaged a target of diverting 40% of municipal waste from landfill and increasing recycling rates to 22%.

Fast-forward to 2020 – these targets remain a pipe dream for 15 consecutive years, as they were sorely missed year after year, and based on the latest figures, almost 90% of waste was disposed to landfills, while only 10.5% recycled.

The only accurate estimate then was on the municipal waste generated on a daily basis – 19,000 tonnes per day in 2005 to more than 30,000 tonnes daily by 2020 or to be more precise 38,142 tonnes of waste per day in 2018, according to the Solid Waste Management and Public Cleansing Corporation (SWCorp).

Based on these figures, there is nearly a doubling of waste produced since 2005, when the per capita generation was around 0.8kg per person per day compared to an average of 1.17kg per person each day in 2018.

According to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government, around RM430 mil (US$104 mil) has been spent on closing just 17 out of 165 existing dumpsites in 2005, and promoting the disposal of solid waste to sanitary landfill.

At present, landfill seems to be the preferred solid waste management option for Malaysia, as waste infrastructure is not well-developed. Local authorities responsible for the management of solid waste are outsourcing the collection and disposal of solid waste to private companies.

But it has become more untenable to rely on landfill because lands are more needed for other purposes due to the robust economic development in the last two decades and a sanitary landfill is one source of pollution in which both biodegradable and non-biodegradable wastes emit toxic gases such as methane into the air in the process of decomposition which may take years to complete.

To enhance solid waste management, Malaysia has taken the approach of privatisation and centralisation. The standard hierarchy of waste management involves five crucial steps: reuse, reduce, recycling, treatment and disposal.

The other element of waste management is to resort to a concept of a circular economy – first propounded by Walter Stahel and Genevieve Reday in their 1976 research report to the European Commission in which they sketched the vision of an economy in loops (or circular economy) and its impact on job creation, economic competitiveness, resource savings and waste prevention.

Promoting a circular economy was identified as national policy in China’s 11th five-year plan starting in 2006. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation has more recently outlined the economic opportunity of a circular economy, bringing together complementary schools of thought in an attempt to create a coherent framework, thus giving the concept a wide exposure and appeal.

In its essence, the circular economy is based on the principles of designing out waste and pollution, keeping products and materials in use, and regenerating natural systems.

Singapore’s adoption of the circular economy is legendary based on a three-pronged strategy. The first and key strategy is waste reduction. Second, is to recycle what the city-state can’t reduce. The third strategy is waste-to-energy – the use of incinerator to reduce the volume of waste, and the toxic ash is sent to the Semakau Landfill – the only landfill in Singapore built on a man-made island away from the mainland.

It is called waste-to-energy because the heat from burning the wastes can be harnessed to generate electricity for domestic use. Singapore incinerates more than 2.8 million tonnes of waste a year, up from 2.4 million tonnes in 2000.

The next thing that the Republic is focusing on now is how to re-use the incineration ash, and to turn it into sand – called NEWSand – for construction purposes, thereby closing the waste loop and is akin to recycling.

The residual ash at the bottom of the incinerator after the wastes have been burnt is toxic but it can be potentially used for non-structural purposes, once it has been treated to ensure that it is suitable for construction purposes.

This is done by extracting more than 200 tonnes of metal a day from the incinerated bottom ash. Singapore is currently exploring treatment process to render the ash for compliance with the environmental standards for construction application.

By reusing the incinerated bottom ash, the demand for landfill space will be reduced and the lifespan of Semakau Landfill extended.

In Malaysia, the narrative on using incinerator is still on the toxic gases that the incinerator is emitting to the air through its chimney, and building an incinerator plant involved heavy and hefty capital outlay. This is an outdated argument.

There are very stringent pollution control measures at the waste-to-energy (WTE) plants – one third of the incineration process is devoted to flue gas treatment systems for pollution control.

The flue gas goes through the electrostatic precipitators to remove 99.7% of the dust. The flue gas then passes through the catalytic bag filters where the dioxin – a highly toxic pollutant and powerful carcinogen produced from burning plastic – is converted into carbon dioxide and water.

The final emissions from the plant are hence clean and this is the standard adopted by incineration plants in Singapore and advanced countries such as Switzerland and Germany.

And in the case of Singapore, it is soon to launch a fifth integrated waste-to-energy plant, which will integrate water management with waste to energy. Building this new plant will enable older, less efficient plants to be replaced and help to reduce the carbon footprint as well i.e., the same amount of waste can produce double the amount of energy.

The reason why the republic co-located the new plant at Tuas with the used water reclamation facility is the synergy obtained when these are combined for better efficiency and resource recovery.

The food waste collected can also be co-digested with used water sludge from wastewater. That will help increase the amount of biogas produced, and in turn the amount of electricity generated.

With all these advantages and pay-offs in the form of power generation, re-using the incinerator ash for making construction materials, and integrating water management with waste to energy, the cost factor becomes less compelling.

Already a Malaysian inventor is reported to have devised a smaller incinerator suitable for the management of municipal waste in which it features a solar-powered incinerator that is able to treat the flue gas and at the same time is able to convert the incinerator ash into organic fertilisers by merely adding sawdust.

The incinerator dubbed as “The Asher” is being exported to countries such as China, Indonesia, Philippines, Dubai and Singapore.

Perhaps what is needed is for private-public partnership to build one incinerator in every state in Malaysia which was actually in the pipeline but being opposed by environmentalists for the sake of opposing.

If the cost is so hefty such that we can’t build a big plant to get the economies of scale like what Singapore did, then Malaysia can follow the Japanese model in its adoption of waste to energy when it built a few hundred smaller incineration plants, where each prefecture and municipality has responsibility for its own waste.

But before we follow any one country on this, we have to assess our own unique scenario by looking at our own waste landscape and adapt the model we borrowed to suite our own unique circumstances. – April 30, 2021


Jamari Mohtar is Director of Media & Communications at EMIR Research, an independent think-tank focused on strategic policy recommendations based upon rigorous research.

The views expressed are solely of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Focus Malaysia.

Subscribe and get top news delivered to your Inbox everyday for FREE