Coalition project cuts waste methane emissions in Malaysia

by CCAC secretariat - 14 August, 2019
Closed fermentation machines installed in Penang markets capture gases from food waste at source

Bacteria exploring the Pulau Burung Sanitary Landfill in Penang, Malaysia, enjoy a wonderful opportunity to feast on the seafood, noodle soup, fresh papaya and eggs declined by customers and stallholders at the Chowrasta wet market in town. As a result, the food decomposes and releases methane and carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from the landfill.

Such microorganisms are better put to work in alternative systems where these gases can be captured. Attracting them to food within machinery located at the market would divert hundreds of chunks of food waste away from landfill.  

That was the inspiration for a new project initiated by a Penang entrepreneur in 2011 and later installed in markets across the state. Once piloted, the fermentation technology, which relies on microbes in closed systems, trapped the methane and carbon CO2. Known as Bio-Regen Food waste processing machines and produced by Bio-regen Photonics, the system was taken up by the local council at George Town, capital of Penang. It is the first such initiative in Malaysia.

Fermentation rollout

Chowrasta market, the largest in Penang, was the chosen location for the pilot project.

A pilot project to tackle more wet market and food waste from hawker stalls, restaurants, coffee shops, and other eateries funded by the Climate and Clean Air Coalition, expanded that process in 2013 to cafes, canteens, hotels and other types of establishments in a state that is densely populated and occupied by many hi-tech companies. The purpose of the project was to reduce methane and other short-lived climate pollutant emissions from waste dumps.

Factories and schools now also use the machinery. By 2017, the project had avoided methane pollution amounting to 700 tonnes of CO2 equivalent (CO2e), diverted nearly 800 tonnes of organic waste from landfill and saved around USD 23,000 in tipping fees. For the first time, Penang had taken control of one of the most powerful greenhouse gases through a simple food waste strategy.

Fermentation of organic waste such as uneaten food is established in many countries. In Penang, this was breaking new ground in an area that cannot accommodate much more rubbish. It is an island state with a population of 1.8 million, and needs to introduce innovative organic waste solutions quickly. This would both avert unnecessary methane emissions and resolve restrictions on space.

“There is great pressure to prolong the lifespan of this landfill, which covers 426 acres and is due to be full by 2028. More land is difficult to find for another landfill,” comments HT Khor. advisor from the Penang Natural Green Organisation, a voluntary organisation that has made recommendations relating to the waste.

Fermentation technology used on organic waste, which constitutes around 40% (1,750 tonnes) of the state’s total daily waste arising, is a good potential option. But as the state considers future waste diversion possibilities, it for the first time faces some of the same problems experienced in G20 economies using similar concepts to battle waste.


Food waste processing machines have been installed at local public schools.

“The attitude and perception of people towards segregating food waste is a barrier”, says HT Khor.  “A greater mindset change for people is needed especially in commercial food centres and among roadside hawkers in order to segregate and dispose of food waste instead of mingling it with other types of solid waste.”

Many recycling initiatives were previously voluntary and only became law relatively recently. For example, a policy to separate waste at source has been extended to residential property owners in Penang on 1 January, 2019, with fines for the first time imposed on those failing to comply.

A waste separation at source policy for all commercial properties has already been in force, but only since 1 January 2018. This was first introduced for specifically for high-rise buildings, shopping malls, restaurants, factories and commercial buildings on 1 June, 2016.

But the state’s inhabitants have only slowly responded. On a national basis, a National Solid Waste Management Policy was passed in 2007 but compliance has taken time, and recycling rates are relatively low.

 “People are still getting used to the idea of segregating food/kitchen and green waste in Penang. Generally, the efforts by the Penang State Government and the two municipal councils area well received but it takes some time for a greater level of compliance to develop,” says HT Khor.

Waste generators feel there are not enough incentives for them to make the effort, and large-scale end-of pipe solution are still needed at the landfill site, which still accepts daily truckloads of organic waste.

For Penang, and for Malaysia generally, it is still early days for organic waste treatment, though there is widespread agreement that food waste is an obvious win in terms of methane reduction and effective waste treatment. According to HT Khor, the Chowrasta Wet Market project sponsored by the Coalition was a key step in that development.

Lessons learnt

A market worker prepares food scraps to be fed into the food processing machine.

“Very important lessons were learnt through the Chowrasta Wet Market pilot,” he comments. For example, it lays the ground for improved policy and standardisation on waste disposal to create a level playing field. This will ensure all businesses in the commercial sector (hotels, restaurants, food outlets and shops) have to pay for transport and disposal of their garbage. Currently this varies. Some engage their own contractors for disposal while others depend on the local authority for such services.

Secondly, it has improved understanding on how to incentivise businesses to minimise and divert waste. For example, both monetary and non-monetary (in kind) incentives to enterprises have been tried out. The project has also helped develop a more systematic approach to awareness-raising, acknowledged the need for staff to monitor the replication of such waste programmes, documented valuable experience especially relating to stakeholder involvement; and laid the ground for state budgets on this issue.

“The Coalition project showcased the feasibility of further organic waste diversion at source from the landfill if a good ground mechanism is in place,” says HT Khor. It also provided input for the Penang Organic Waste Management Plan published in April 2015, which aims eventually to greatly reduce organic waste disposal to landfill.

New measures

Further measures are now in progress. Since the pilot, both the Penang Island City Council and its neighbour on the mainland, the Seberang Perai Municipal Council, have embarked on more food waste diversion projects or expanded the scope at the community and municipal level.

The project has prompted a Request for Proposals by the Penang Island City Council to divert 100 tonnes of food waste per day at source. The recently completed Batu Maung Waste Transfer Station on Penang Island now includes chipper machines to deal with green waste from gardens, parks and roadside trimmings, all of which have organic content. Such additions would not have been considered in the past.

“It will take strong and bold political will to implement programmes that may not be popular but that are good for the environment,” concludes HT Khor. Public education to achieve a mindset change will therefore continue to play a vital part in waste minimisation and better resource recovery.