Incinerator plans may soften Malaysia's approach on waste plastics

Commentary by KHOR Yu Leng, independent economist at Segi Enam Advisors

The Pakatan Harapan administration has worked hard on the waste plastics tide that hit the shores of Malaysia in 2017-2018 (see Diagram 1 for our review of UN Comtrade data). But there is widening concern that a fast track plan for a dozen or more incinerators softens its waste plastics stance.

The plan is for one incinerator or more in each state. Malaysia has thirteen states.

Eager policy makers may be eyeing billions of capital expenditure in these projects and billions in the waste processing business.

But it points to a worrying u-turn in Pakatan Harapan's policy on incinerators. Its politicians used to campaign against alongside worried local communities against these potential polluters.

Diagram 1. Tidal wave of waste plastics in 2017-2018 faced a clamp down by the new administration from May 2018. Khor Reports

Diagram 1. Tidal wave of waste plastics in 2017-2018 faced a clamp down by the new administration from May 2018. Khor Reports

Selangor eyes two incinerators or waste-to-energy plants at Jeram and Tanjung Dua Belas to cost RM1.5 billion with a China company. It was China waste processors who rushed to Malaysia and other ASEAN countries like Thailand, Vietnam and Indonesia to offshore their activities on China's ban of waste plastic imports. If it is to be a dozen incinerators close to the indicative Selangor cost, the total could be RM9 billion.

Diagram 1 shows that the US, UK, Japan and Germany were big waste exporters recently. Malaysians are also bewildered that the likes of Bangladesh finds it advantageous to send some of its waste here.

News reports in the Malaysia media also point to a boom in illegal waste processors and illegal noxious open burning. Some exporters even cheated and mislabelled contaminated waste for clean exports. There is concern from campaigners in waste origin countries. 

Close observers reckon that the incinerators mega projects plan point to a strategic push to firmly establish the waste plastics business in Malaysia on a large scale. When a new plant comes up (the first was initially targeted for June 2019) the waste plastic import volumes should come back to life. 

Business analysts note that it appears to be a major push to award projects, including to China companies. Some ask about the track record of these companies and the award process.

Technical observers are worried.  Bottom ash from incinerators is highly toxic and these have to be put in landfills (putting a bad hole in the promotion of incenerators as a replacement for polluting land fills).

Moreover there is also fly ash to worry about. Even from the best run incinerators the question of damaging nano particles (that can enter your bloodstream) arises. Incinerators emit toxic particulate matter, volatile organic compounds, heavy metals, dioxins and more.

There is also a pervasive pessimism about Malaysia's ability to operate incinerators properly. Some incinerators are only 10 percent efficient we are told, and wet waste is part of the problem.

A number of Malaysia's pricey renewable energy projects have been beset by operational problems (and failure, including biomass) and allegations of corruption (e.g., solar project of 1MDB). Indeed, there are already four failed incinerator projects in the country (with one or more seeking revival). These controversial projects are in Pulau Tioman, Pulau Pangkor, Cameron Highlands and Pulai Langkawi. Interestingly three of these are in islands ("pulau") more known for tropical island tourism and away from urban areas where such projects often trigger community protests. 

At the one year anniversary of the Pakatan Harapan administration, Prime Minister Mahathir rated his cabinet "5 out of 10." How will Malaysians rate this new ambitious incinerator-waste strategy? 

Link to the Public Forum: Do We Need Incinerators, held recently in Kuala Lumpur, here.


News links on nationwide incinerators mega project plan:

Each state to have at least one incinerator within two years, 24 Sep 2018

First WTE incinerator to begin operation by June, 18 Mar 2019


Ban waste incineration by S. M. Mohamed Idris, President, Consumers’ Association of Penang, 17 Dec 2018

Why the U-turn from Pakatan over incinerators? by Vanisha Selvam, 2 Mar 2019