Introduce recycle guide label to improve national recycling rate

This is as 99% of Malaysians do not have the knowledge to separate multi-material consumer goods before recycling 

Pic by BERNAMA

THE federal government had set an unambitious target of achieving national recycling rate (NRR) of 40% in the year 2025. The NRR has reached 31.52% in 2021 compared to 30.67% in 2020. 

At this rate, the NRR will hover around 35% in 2025. This is a disappointing outcome when coupled with the fact that the National Recycling Programmes was started in 1993. 

Solid waste management is under the purview of the Housing and Local Government Ministry (KPKT). The regulatory body is National Solid Waste Management Department while the executing government-linked companies (GLCs) are Solid Waste and Public Cleansing Management Corp, Alam Flora Sdn Bhd and KDEB Waste Management Sdn Bhd. 

Previously, ministers, bureaucrats and GLCs directors with the six-figure salary per annum had repeatedly blamed the people’s mentality for the low NRR, deflecting their inability to solve public problems. 

Still, they do not have any moral high ground to blame on people because they had failed to fully utilise the policymaking tools available to improve recycling rate. 

Firstly, consumers lack guidance to recycle or dispose of goods at the end of its lifespan and its packaging. Manufacturers produce millions of iterations of consumer goods and packaging. Majority of consumer goods and its packaging are made of a combination of recyclable and non-recyclable parts. 

Manufacturers emphasise profit before the planet and have no natural motivation to improve their products’ environmental footprint. 

Globally, manufacturers only improve their products’ environmental footprint when under intense pressure from green consumerism or government regulations. 

For example, an instant noodle cup is made up of aluminium foil for seasoning and top cover, rigid plastic cup and spoon, and paper for producing information. 

Most people assume aluminium foil can be recycled in the aluminium bin. However, aluminium and silver foil are non-recyclable. The rigid plastic cup and spoon must be cleaned to remove food decontamination before recycling. 

Another example will be empty tissue boxes. Tissue boxes are made of box with some flimsy transparent plastic flap around the dispenser hole. The plastic flap needs to be removed before the box is sent to recycle. 

However, 99% of Malaysians do not have the knowledge to dismantle and separate multi-material consumer goods before recycling. Eventually, the whole item is dumped into landfill bound trash bins. Hundreds of tonnes of landfill bound waste could have been recycled if it was separated correctly. 

Secondly, manufacturers and big businesses are systematically misleading environmentally conscious consumers on a daily basis to consume products assuming those items are recyclable. One such example are paper cups and plates that are handed out by fast food chain outlets nationwide.

About 20 years ago, fast food chains provided dine-in customers with reusable plates and cups. This had been replaced with paper plates and cups. Meanwhile, high end coffee chains such as Starbucks replaced reusable mugs for disposable cups. 

These were methods done to reduce and eliminate workers like table cleaners and dishwashers respectively. These labour cost savings tactics never trickled down as higher wages for existing workers nor cheaper goods for people. However, the overall society continues to drown under piles of trash. 

Majority of people tend to feel good after throwing those paper cups and plates into paper recycling bins. Unknown to them, the inner part of paper plates and cups are coated with plastic. The plastic lined paper cups and plates cannot be recycled but can contaminate the process of recycling papers 

Mixing non-recyclable waste with recyclable materials reduces the effective recycling rate (ERR). Although 31.52% of waste are sent to recycling centres, that does not mean 31.52% are actually recycled. Certain non-recyclable plastics such as flimsy wrappers and plastic bags can damage recycling equipment. Meanwhile, pizza boxes and paper straws with food contamination cannot be recycled. 

The overall ERR may actually be far lower than the NRR rate. Big businesses are knowingly withholding from full and proper disclosure to mislead people into assuming they had made environmentally responsible consumption. 

Thirdly, people are making purchases without knowing the amount of non-recyclable material inside the enclosed packaging. Manufacturers are steadily reducing the proportion of consumed goods without decreasing the size of external packing by introducing extra internal packing. 

One such example is processed food packaging such as biscuits and crackers. About 10 years ago, consumers could eat the biscuits directly after opening the main packaging. About 5 years ago, the biscuits were repackaged into smaller packs within the main packaging. Today, there are large transparent plastic trays holding the small packs in the main package. 

Consumers will not realise the proportion of unneeded packaging until they open the external packaging at home. The so-called “free market” has free reign to trick consumers into buying things without full disclosure. Private profit thrives by preying on public ignorance through unethical business practises. 

Recycling Guide Label 

The government must introduce a “Recycling Guide Label” in both Bahasa Malaysia and English. The label must provide instructions on steps to separate, recycle and disposal of the items and its packaging. People have no time to search so clear instruction is necessary to improve recycling at source. 

Recycling Guide Label ensures higher ERR by minimising contaminations at source of separation. The label will provide higher disclosure to consumers about their waste impact before the purchase. The label will also shift away from eco-conscious putting downward pressure on the revenue for manufacturers with wasteful practises. Subsequently, manufacturers will design environmentally friendly goods and packaging. 

Moving Forward 

There are existing federal laws and regulations that allow the federal government to enforce such labelling on consumer goods. However, these laws are not under the purview of KPKT. 

Regulations and standards for labels such for food, cosmetics and electronics are fragmented across multiple ministries such as the Ministry of Health, Minister of Trade, Ministry of Domestic Trade and Consumer Affairs etc. 

Henceforth, the Recycling Guide Label requires multi-ministry executive powers for execution. As complex it sounds, it merely requires the commitment from the Cabinet. Malaysia could achieve NRR of 50% by 2025 through implementing the Recycling Guide Label. The benefits of a higher recycling rate are well known. 

The fundamental question to raise recycling rate is the political will for execution of Recycling Guide Label. 

  • Sharan Raj is a human rights activist, environmentalist and infrastructure policy analyst. 

The views expressed are of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the stand of the newspaper’s owners and editorial board.