Buddhist Compassion Relief Tzu Chi Foundation

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Sep 21st
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Garbage in Paradise

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Garbage in Paradise
An expanding program
Make recycling everybody's business
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In April 2007, a barge crossing from Penang Island to Seberang Perai, on the Malay Peninsula, sank into the depths of the Strait of Malacca. Tons upon tons of the cargo--garbage from the heavily urbanized island--floated to the surface of the sea, seriously polluting the surrounding waters. This incident spotlighted an issue that Penang Island and other densely inhabited metropolitan areas in Malaysia had dreaded to face but had not been able to wish away: exporting their garbage to somebody else's backyard.

Throughout its lifecycle, garbage never stops taking a heavy financial and environmental toll on Malaysia. Garbage disposal drains 400 million ringgits (US$126.5 million) out of Malaysia's coffers each year. Then the garbage in landfills, 70 percent of which are near streams or watersheds, continues the onslaught by seeping, especially in the rainy season, into streams and rivers to foul up drinking water and the aquatic ecosystem. Meanwhile, methane and other greenhouse gases escape into the air, adding to more atmospheric warming.

To counter this gloomy picture, many citizens in Malaysia, from Penang Island to Kuala Lumpur, are taking action to raise public awareness of the environmental impact and costs of garbage. They are also working to reduce the amount of garbage by doing and promoting recycling. Although relatively few in number, these people are marching steadfastly forward, determined to make a dent in this problem. They are Tzu Chi recycling volunteers.

Prosperity on Penang Island seems quite easy to see from the numerous vessels calling at its natural deepwater port, whose water channels allow the vessels to connect with more than 200 harbors around the world. One of the water channels, however, is bringing to fore the island's biggest headache--the problem of garbage.

Every day, 300 trucks collect garbage throughout Penang Island. They go to Batu Maung and dump their loads into 15-ton containers, which are then pulled to a dock and loaded onto a large barge. The barge makes three round trips a day to the Pulau Burong landfill in Seberang Perai across the strait to dispose of the 600 tons of garbage that the residents and tourists on the island generate each day.

Doesn't Penang Island have a landfill of its own for a more convenient and more cost-effective way to dispose of its garbage? It certainly used to, at Jelutong near the sea, but that site was closed to household waste in 1995 after 22 years of active operations. The mountain of garbage at Jelutong continues to disintegrate and discharge foul-smelling gases into the air.

It isn't that Penang Island likes the trouble and expense of hauling its garbage elsewhere. After all, it costs the island 130 ringgits (US$41) to dispose of each ton of garbage shipped to Pulau Burong. But the city simply has no viable alternatives. The island has not mustered enough political will to change the situation, so it keeps shipping its garbage out day after day.

However, the barge that sank en route to Pulau Burong in April 2007 brought renewed urgency to the matter. In Pulau Burong, fishermen protested over the fouled waters and the impact on their harvest, and legislators criticized the inadequate wastewater treatment system at the landfill. They were unequivocal in their disgust: "Penang Island, stop giving us your garbage!" Garbage has become a crisis that Penang Island has to face.

A simple idea started it all
Along the shores, wooden houses sit on stilts, which usually stand in water when the tide comes in. The houses line raised boardwalks that wind along, partly on land and partly along the beach or over the ocean. Usually, the houses connected by one boardwalk were built by people with the same last name. Chinese immigrants built and lived in such houses when they came to the country in the mid 1900s. People called those boardwalks Chen Bridge, Wang Bridge, and so on. You can think of them as jetties, as a sign at the Chew Jetty (姓周橋, literally "surnamed Chew bridge") suggests, with houses built along and around. What are left of those old houses and jetties--the historical Pengkalan Weld--are now a tourist attraction on the island.

Those houses, still occupied, are also where Tzu Chi volunteers on Penang Island have been visiting once a month for the last seven years to promote the concept of environmental protection and to collect recyclables from the residents.

Lim Leng Chiok (林玲石), 70, who lives on Yang Bridge, called out for the Tzu Chi volunteers and started pulling things out of her house. Old newspapers were stacked in high but neat piles in her small living room. The green bucket in the hall was a trove of rinsed cans and bottles. The plentiful recyclables from Lim, her family, and her neighbors in Pengkalan Weld kept the volunteers busy but happy. This site is the volume leader in the area.

"My oldest son works at a newspaper," Lim told me. "I ask him to collect old papers and bring them home. My neighbors also give me theirs. So I usually have quite a lot of newspapers for Tzu Chi." Then she started sobbing. "It's so nice of Tzu Chi people to do recycling and use the proceeds to help pay for my son's dialysis.... I'll do my bit to help with recycling."

There are many patients in need of dialysis in Malaysia. Ten years ago, about half of dialysis patients died because they couldn't afford the cost of the treatment. In 1997, volunteers on Penang Island opened the Tzu Chi Dialysis Center to provide free treatments for destitute patients.

"The expenses for operating a dialysis center far outpaced what we could bring in from charity sales and fundraising on the street," said Teoh Paik Lim (張濟玄), Tzu Chi recycling coordinator on Penang Island. "When we thought of what the Master said--'Turn garbage into gold and gold into love'--and we decided to engage in recycling to raise the money. After all, recycling is something that everyone can do every day." Teoh hopes the recycling program can tap into the strength of many more people than bake sales and street fundraising ever could.

So the volunteers set out to do recycling, something that they knew little about. What they did have to keep them going was a firm belief that they were doing something worthwhile. They kicked off their recycling program in 1997 with 200 people going door to door to spread the word on recycling. Back then the Penang Island government had not started promoting the importance of environmental protection, and the public had been neither aware of nor much interested in recycling. This had translated into a dismal overall recycling rate of .05 percent.

"When we started the program, we didn't know much about the greenhouse effect and global warming. All we knew was that the sale of recyclables brought in money to save kidney patients," said Teoh.

That simple appeal alone, however, was enough to resonate with many people, Tzu Chi members or not, who responded by saving their household recyclable garbage. Tzu Chi volunteers made scheduled rounds to collect from people's homes.


 

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Volunteers

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