In 2019, before the pandemic, the solid waste (i.e.garbage, plastic, paper, organic waste) generated by the Malaysian population was 3,108.9 thousand tonnes, an increase of 4.6% from the previous year (3,098.7 thousand tonnes). On average, Malaysians throw out 38,000 tonnes of domestic waste daily including 4,080 tonnes of food waste.
Since the introduction of food delivery services and online shopping, single used waste items have steadily increased. Malaysia recorded the highest annual per capita plastic use at 16.78 kg per person in 2019.
This is higher than our neighbours based on a 2020 World Wildlife Fund (WWF) Malaysia report; Singapore (12.5kg), Philippines (12.4 kg), Thailand (15.52kg) and Vietnam (12.93kg).
The Effect Of MCO On Solid Waste
At the start of the movement control order (MCO) in March 2020, Malaysians were directed to stay at home, almost all day, all the time. Factories, eateries and businesses were forced to shut their doors to curb the spread of the COVID-19 virus. The streets became empty and the air was fresher with fewer vehicles on the road.
At the same time, there was a reduction of 9.94% of solid wastage – a total of 1312.16 tonnes of solid waste) as a result of massive closure.
Two months later, with restrictions slightly lifted, a select few industries were allowed to operate. The number of solid wastes steadily increased, from 1538.69 tonnes to 1553.59 tonnes and 1563.87 tonnes in 2020 . The yearly solid waste gathered from households in Malaysia amounted to 6.1 million tonnes. This encompasses 44.5% of solid waste in Malaysia.
The Plastic Pandemic
Yes, we may have seen images of sea turtles with a plastic straw up their nostrils.
Campaigns to reduce plastics have been successful in raising awareness and encouraging the public to reduce single use plastic items. Even so, plastic straws only make up 0.025% of the 8 million tonnes of plastic waste that flow out to the ocean.
Despite the momentary lockdown and reduction in solid waste during that period, the pandemic as a whole (2020 and 2021) has not helped the curbing and generation of more plastic waste.
The sales of manufactured plastics rose 23% year-on-year to RM38.68 billion in the first eight months of 2021. Exports of plastic products increased 21% in the same period from RM8.63 billion to RM10.43 billion. The strong increase was attributed to the opening of most market sectors both local and international. – Datuk Lim Kok Boon, President Of Malaysian Plastics Manufacturers Association (MPMA)
Online Shopping Craze Contributing To The Issue
We browse online shopping platforms to procure our needs and wants. At least 22 million consumers in Malaysia are now digital consumers. During MCO, Malaysians who purchased from online platforms 3 to 4 times per week increased by 7%.
Most parcels that arrive at our doorstep is layered in plastic packaging, plastic bubble wrap and paper boxes. Some may reuse the bubble wrap and cardboard boxes but some are disposed into the bin and eventually the landfill.
Packaging waste is becoming an issue in Malaysia, as it is worldwide. While a large share of the commercial and industrial recyclable material is recycled, it is not clear how much of post-consumer packaging waste is actually recycled and how much ends up in landfills. – Pauline Goh, general manager of Malaysian Recycling Alliance (Marea) 
Food Delivery Stacks Up The Waste Problem Too
A large majority of F&B outlets had to resort to online food delivery platforms to reach the masses during the MCO period. While Beepit, GrabFood and Foodpanda increased in numbers, so did plastic containers. Households receiving food delivery once or twice per week grew by 6%. As a result of this, Malaysians used 148,000 tonnes of plastic packaging when purchasing food in 2020.
More and more people are opting for food take-outs and deliveries, purchasing groceries online and switching to disposable utensils for convenience and reassurance. Almost all of our food is wrapped in plastic, and this causes a huge spike in packaging waste generation, primarily consisting of plastics. – Dr Adrian Choo, WWF-Malaysia sustainable markets programme lead
When restaurants re-opened their doors, many were hesitant to immediately allow diners in and tapau-ing became a norm. Some restaurants also prohibited customers from bringing in their containers to avoid possible contamination.
Consequently, the reliance on single-use plastic resulted in landfills struggling to cope with more waste. The Solid Waste Management and Public Health Cleansing Corporation (SWCorp) pointed out that illegal landfills were mushrooming to accommodate the high demands.
Adding on to this, we utilise masks, gloves and sanitisers to protect ourselves from COVID-19 infections. It is estimated that over 10 million face masks were used and discarded daily in Malaysia.
Even though it is possible to use fabric masks to reduce wastage, disposable masks are still in demand, especially with many adapting the practice of double-masking to guard themselves against COVID-19 infections.
The Economic Disparity Even When It Comes To Waste
What the pandemic has revealed is the disproportionate impact it has on people from different socioeconomic levels. When it comes to waste, the same rule applies. It was found that higher-income households in urban areas were likely to generate more solid waste compared to lower-income and rural households[4, 15].
The reasoning behind this is that more affluent households were over-purchasing food, stocking them up with every shopping excursion. However, this only led to more wastage as supplies and food piled up and some went to waste because of excess or expiry.
Mismanagement Of Waste
Our landfills were far from equipped even prior to the pandemic. SWCorp reported that many of our landfills were already at full capacity.
We cannot rely on landfills because there are already too many and saturated landfills in Malaysia, so we need to have a strategy and comprehensive action plan by having facilities to convert solid waste to energy, as well as treatment of building waste and food waste. – Zulkifli Tambi Chik, SWCorp director (research and technology)
Landfills are not the final solution to our waste problem as it is only a place for storing the waste. If the waste is not attended to, problems would ensue. Often, communities living nearby landfills suffer a great deal because of the mismanagement of waste.
In 2019, for example, the residents of Jenjarom in Kuala Langat were covered in 17,000 tonnes (17 million kg) of plastic waste. The area has 33 illegal plastic recycling factories. The brunt of it was felt by 30,000 residents living nearby those factories.
I started to feel unwell and I would keep coughing. I was really angry when I found out it was because of the factories. – Mr Daniel Tay, a resident at Jenjarom, Kuala Langat
He got a really bad rash around his stomach, neck, legs and arms. His skin would keep peeling, even when we touched him it hurt. I was angry and scared for his health but what could I do? The smell was everywhere in the air. – Belle Tan spoke about symptoms her son experienced as a result of emissions from an illegal plastic burning factory 1km away from her home
The story of the villagers in Jenjarom inhaling the stench of burnt plastic is just one example. Thanks to the wide media exposure both locally and internationally, the villagers were given the justice they deserved.
What Needs To Be Done?
Households have a strong role to play in reducing the use of single-use plastic. When industries were closed down, the amount of waste originating from households was steadily increasing as online shopping and food deliveries orders soared.
A zero-waste lifestyle can be taken step by step, without changing your lifestyle 360 degrees. Baby steps include:
- Carry a tote bag or a canvas bag while doing your shopping and say no to plastic bags.
- Attempt to bring your containers when you are planning to take away food.
- Bring your tumbler on your next trip to a cafe, some cafes would reward you with a discount by bringing in one.
- Slowly shift from conventional household and personal care products using single-use plastics.
- Leave your old clothes in any Kloth Cares bins.
- Hover around the Zero Waste Malaysia map for a comprehensive guide on how to lead a zero-waste lifestyle.
With most businesses and enterprises incorporating delivery services through online platforms, the overreliance on plastic bubble wraps can be slowly phased off with other alternatives:
- Reuse loose paper and cardboard boxes around your house to package your customers’ online shopping orders.
- Find a new home for your kitchen waste either by composting with MAEKO or donating bruised edible fruits and vegetables to The Lost Food Project or Yayasan Food Bank Malaysia.
I have seen that some restaurants have the option to exclude cutlery or sauces. From the restaurants’ end, they can look at biodegradable packaging options rather than plastic. – Valerie Tan, brand manager of Real Food People Sdn Bhd 
3. If you are in the tourism sector, get rid of the plastic bottles and take a note from the Element by Westin Kuala Lumpur where they provide good installed tap water in their hotel rooms  or invest in a bottling system where drinkable water is filled into glass bottles.
It took a lot of education. When you turn on the television, the second slide tells you why we do not have plastic bottles and why we have installed the water filter. We also talked to guests in the lobby. – Doris Chin, general manager of Element by Westin Kuala Lumpur 
Since 2018, Malaysia has been tasked to reduce plastic consumption under the “Roadmap Towards Zero-Single Use Plastics 2018-2030”. The roadmap highlights the “no-plastic straw by default” in the first phase that ended last year. Following this, Malaysians were encouraged to use biodegradable bags from 2022 onwards.
It is also heartening to see that the recycling rate in Malaysia has increased (31.5% in 2021 compared to 30. 7% in 2020). Once upon a time, plastic was hailed for its durability. Soon we recognised that it is not all good when it comes to its disposal. The responsibility of reducing waste is on everyone’s shoulders.
If the problem isn’t tackled adequately, the ocean could contain more plastic than fish, as WWF projected the volume of plastic waste would only increase four-fold between 2010 and 2050.
Plastic pollution is long-lasting, and if we do not take urgent and proper action now, it will negatively impact our health, wildlife, and the natural environment in the long term. – Dr Adrian Choo, WWF-Malaysia sustainable markets programme lead
Explore our sources:
- Department Of Statistics Malaysia. (2020). Compendium of Environment Statistics, Malaysia 2020. Link
- F.Zainal. (2021). Daily food waste staggering. The Star. Link
- A.Yeo. (2021). Annual plastic usage is getting worse – 148,000 tonnes for food packaging alone. Astro Awani. Link
- V.Arumugam., I.Abdullah.,I.S. Mohd Yusoff., N.L.Abdullah. R.Mohd Tahir. A.Mohd Nasir. A.Ehsan Omar. M.H.Ismail. (2021). The Impact of COVID-19 on Solid Waste Generation in the Perspectives of Socioeconomic and People’s Behavior: A Case Study in Serdang, Malaysia. Link
- Y.Badrum. (2021). Shaping a new norm for waste management. Thoughts BERNAMA. Link
- Shaharudin, A.A (2020). Protecting the Agriculture Sector during the COVID-19 Crisis. KRI Views, 27, 1–14. Link
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- A. Adam. (2021). SWCorp data shows trashpile averaged slightly over 200,000 tonnes a month since MCO 1.0, mostly from food and plastics. Malay Mail. Link
- Fatimah Zainal, N. Trisha, M. Kaur (2020). “Expert: Over 10 million face masks binned daily” The Star. Link
- N.F.A.R Sulaiman.; A.Ahmad. (2018). Save The Food for A Better Future: A Discussion on Food Wastage in Malaysia. Int. J. Law Gov. Commun. Link
- A.H. Zaki. (2019). Waste not, want not – it’s time to get serious about food waste. New Straits Times. Link
- The Star. (2021). SWCorp targets 40% recycling rate by 2025, current rate at 30%. Link
- Y.Tan. (2019). Plastic pollution: One town smothered by 17,000 tonnes of rubbish. BBC News. Link
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- WWF. (2020). WWF Releases Report Proposing Effective Solution to Mitigate Plastic Pollution in Malaysia. Link