The trash left behind by COVID-19: An overdue overhaul of waste disposal management

Published on 25 Nov 2021

The COVID-19 pandemic has put nations to the test, exacerbating issues that have been on the back burner and forcing the hands of leaders to reckon with these challenges.  It is estimated that over ten million face masks are being used and discarded daily in Malaysia[1]. Food packaging and shopping bags have compounded this issue as the economy resorts to non-contact deliveries.

In essence, the pandemic has caused a skyrocket in solid waste production. Urbanised and rural states alike are forced to turn to online consumerism, with the current health climate fuelling new single-use necessities such as sanitary wipes and plastic take-away boxes. Despite the adoption of a “new norm”, the government is yet to provide guidance on the safe disposal of items such as disposable face masks. This is made worse by selfish and inconsiderate individuals who strew their masks on pavements and waterways.

Malaysia has never been at the forefront of solid waste management, resorting to landfills as its main form of waste disposal. Loose regulations and unsuccessful campaigns have resulted in 3,108.9 thousand tonnes of solid waste in 2019 – including municipal, industrial and commercial wastes such as plastics, food waste and metal scraps. This has far surpassed the proposed rate of 30,000 tons of waste generated daily in accordance with a 2020 study by the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA)[2].

Solid waste disposal is managed by National Solid Waste Management Deparment (JPSPN) and the Solid Waste Management and Public Cleansing Corporation (SWCorp). Despite efforts such as the privatisation of collection and disposal processes, nearly 90% of waste is reportedly channelled to landfills while only an underwhelming 10.5% is recycled[3].

Solid waste disposal in Malaysia falls short on three accounts: awareness, management and technology. A poor civic mindset towards waste management has resulted in a lack of urgency among households to reduce municipal solid waste production and awareness on proper waste disposal methods. Private companies have been slow to invest in green technologies to manage their waste while companies licensed by the government do not have the budget or resources to process solid waste sustainably[4].

While effective waste disposal systems seem to only make the priority list of developed nations, it is paradoxical that the environmental consequences of poor solid waste management is what deters developing nations such as Malaysia from advancement. As policymakers guide Malaysia out of the pandemic, they must pursue more sustainable and long-term solid waste disposal strategies. Alongside the 3 existing R’s which guide solid waste management – reduce, reuse and recycle – there are 3 new R’s which Malaysia can adopt.

Role of consumers

Solid waste separation at its source is crucial in sustainable waste management and was made mandatory by Article 74 of the Solid Waste and Public Cleansing Management Act 2007 (Act 672). It reduces the amount of solid waste sent to landfills by ensuring that recyclable materials are salvaged – thus reducing the country’s allocation for solid waste disposal.

Despite the 2015 #Asingkan campaign which was enacted to enforce Article 74 of Act 672, a study by Fitriyah Razali from Universiti Teknologi Malaysia revealed that waste separation in Malaysia still remains low[5]. Currently, the only means of regulation include fines for failure to segregate waste. The lack of awareness and urgency that persists among households proves that such a system is ineffective. In the instance that punishment is the only means of enforcing policies, citizens are able to take advantage of poor regulation and escape fines. The impossibility of regulating each and every household’s waste separation calls for a new system which provides more effective incentives.

South Korea’s volume-based waste fee (VBWF) system has set the benchmark for sustainable waste management[6], and is an alternative to funding Malaysia’s waste collection and disposal system. Residents are charged by the amount of garbage they dispose of at a time, as measured by the size of the trash bag used. These trash bags must be purchased separately in order to dispose of household municipal solid waste, and waste that is not discarded in these bags are not collected for fear of penalisation. Paired with the regulatory use of radio-frequency identification (RFID) machines in 2013, there has been an overall decrease of 25% in food dumping as households began proactively composting their leftover food to reduce costs.

The VBWF system reforms waste management into a service that is excludable as households pay for their usage of this service. As such, this forces residents to play their role in waste management by integrating financial incentives throughout the process rather than just at the end of it. It is also vital that a change in system is paired with greater investment in education, be it in the form of education or awareness campaigns.

Despite the effectiveness of South Korea’s WBWF’s programme, it is questionable if a similar programme adopted in Malaysia will yield similar results. For it to work, it is key that the rakyat understand the need to instil more sustainable and less wasteful lifestyles for the sake of the environment, thus subscribe to such a programme willingly. Should such values not be internalised and understood, then this (and any) initiative will fail and backfire spectacularly when people hoping to avoid waste fees simply litter in public areas to avoid detection – defeating the purpose of the campaign in the first place.

Research & Redirection

Malaysia’s reliance on landfills is accredited to its lack of research and technologies in sustainable waste management systems. Incinerator plants in Malaysia are reliant on imported equipment which have led to variable costs and delivery delays as well as concerns surrounding its suitability in processes local solid waste sustainably[7]. Alongside that, inconsistent data on waste generation and composition has meant that waste minimisation programmes cannot be conducted effectively as regulators are unable to accurately identify and monitor pollution sources[8].

Malaysia is left with a system in which there is insufficient research that is channelled into the wrong solutions. There must be an increase in investment into green technology that is partnered by a redirection in localised waste management systems.

There must be a shift away from large-scale alternatives such as incinerators, which are costly and cannot be made readily available across Malaysia . EOSystems Inc has recently developed a waste processing technique called mediated electrochemical oxidation (MEO), which Malaysia could begin investing in. Resembling large electrochemical cells, an electric supply provides a current to pump liquid wastes through a closed loop system and destroys it in an acid electrolyte such as sulfuric acid. Waste materials are broken down into water and carbon dioxide, and the system reportedly has significantly lower initial capital investment and operating costs.

Waste recycling facilities are currently dispersed around Malaysia, making it difficult to recover recyclable waste. Not only do recycling facilities need to be more accessible for both households and waste disposal companies , but incentives must be provided for Malaysia to work towards a circular economy. This includes the government’s recent adoption of an Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) scheme, which aims to hold producers and importers accountable for the production and disposal of their products. Its success will be contingent upon a clear framework which obliges companies of all sizes to contribute to the collection, separating and recycling of plastic[9]. As for the collection of household municipal waste, waste collection could be diverted to different companies responsible for recyclable and non-recyclable waste. Alternatively, recycling companies could utilise mobile apps to schedule waste collection with households to increase the ease and clarity of collecting recyclables.

This is an opportunity for Malaysia to lead innovative changes in recycling techniques, pandering to a Southeast-Asian social and environmental climate.

Regulation & Regionalisation

One of the leading issues regarding waste management in Malaysia is the inconsistency of compliance throughout the country. Act 672 is currently the only legislation which regulates solid waste disposal in Malaysia, yet is only adopted in six states – Perlis Kedah, Pahang, Negeri Sembilan, Melaka, Johor, and the federal territories of Kuala Lumpur and Putrajaya.

This is an issue because states such as Selangor with its significantly higher rate of waste generation as a result of urbanisation are not held to the standards that they should be in managing solid waste. It is also pivotal that Malaysia not ignore the increasing urbanisation of its other states – of which an increase in waste generation will inevitably follow. If progress is to be made, Act 672 must be adopted nationally.

Additionally, it is important that waste management programmes are tailored to the needs of each district. This can be achieved by implementing regional solid waste management departments that are accountable to a federal department – as encouraged by the Action Plan for a Beautiful and Clean Malaysia (ABC) in 1988[10]. To ensure national progress, this can be paired with specific waste generation and recycling rates that are set by the federal department and revised every 3 years. Goals should be tailored to the volume of waste generation as well as the state of technology of each district.

More than ever, Malaysia is in need of an innovative reform of its solid waste disposal system. It can no longer afford to opt into easy alternatives which bear unavoidable externalities. A successful sustainable waste management system will be one that is uncompromising and involves the entire nation in pursuing the 3 new R’s.


[1] Fatimah Zainal, N. Trisha, Manjit Kaur, “Expert: Over 10 million face masks binned daily” (2020)

[2] MIDA Insights, “Sustainable Waste Management in Malaysia: Opportunities and Challenges”

[3] Kok Siew Ng, Eleni Iacovidou, “Malaysia Versus Waste”(2020)

[4]  Jayashree Sreenivasan, Marthandan Govindan, Malarvizhi Chinnasami, Indrakaran Kadiresu, “Solid Waste Management in Malaysia – A Move Towards Sustainability” (2012)

[5] Nur Imani Binti Abdullah, “Time M’sians separated their solid waste at home” (2018)

[6] Elaine JY Lee, “South Korea: The Future of Trash” (2020)

[7] New Straits Times, “Transforming solid waste management”(2020)

[8] Jayashree Sreenivasan, Marthandan Govindan, Malarvizhi Chinnasami, Indrakaran Kadiresu, “Solid Waste Management in Malaysia – A Move Towards Sustainability” (2012)

[9] Jazlyn Lee, “Waste not want not: Malaysia moves to become a leader in tackling plastic waste” (2021)

[10] Ministry of Housing and Local Department Malaysia, “National Strategic Plan for Solid Waste Management” (2005)



25 Nov 2021