Sustainable Material and Waste Management

Seahorse installation from scrapped metal

By Biji-biji Initiative & Anisa Pinatih

Most people are constantly in need of more goods and services these days. Having just about everything a few taps away has made our consumption patterns become unhealthy. This also means more detrimental effects on the wellbeing of our planet. But ceasing to consume is impossible, so a more feasible solution is to reimagine consumption in a way that is beneficial to the people as well as to the planet.

Also read: Waste Management and Minimisation in Southeast Asia: An Overview

The threat to the environment is not only from the exploitation of the non-renewable materials but also from the overuse of the renewable resources such as plastic, glass, cotton, wood, latex, charcoal and so on. The extraction, transportation and utilisation of these materials contribute to the increase of carbon emissions.

Advancement in technology and communication has allowed the world’s economy to grow increasingly connected so more materials are being consumed and transported over longer distances. Data released by UN Environment Programme in 2013 shows that material consumption is painstakingly high in Asia Pacific, compared to any other part of the world; and this is predicted to remain high in the next decade. The report[1] claims that Asia Pacific is the highest contributor of waste, at 23 per cent of the global disposal per 2019.

Substitution and recycling are not sufficient and will only delay ultimate depletion. Complete recycling of waste is almost impossible, especially for developing countries in Asia. Circular economy framework is an ideal solution but this is difficult to put into practice. Effective resource management will reduce raw material extraction so waste and energy consumption will also be minimised.

Material flow and sustainability are interconnected. Understanding this is important to reduce material intensity. Generally speaking, the flow comprises the ecological system, industrial system and societal system. The ecological system is where energy is sourced and resources are extracted. The industrial system is where supply chains take place and energy is produced. The societal system is where energy, products are used. These three systems are interconnected; the flow from the societal system to the ecological system is where waste is produced.

Sustainable materials management focuses on material life cycles to achieve economic efficiency and environmental viability. The life cycles consist of material selection, exploration, extraction, transportation, processing, consumption, recycling, and disposal. Two ways to practise sustainability are through dematerialisation and detoxification.

Dematerialisation is a reduction along the life cycles by increasing efficiency in the supply chain; reducing packaging; designing eco-friendly products; cutting down transport; and recycling post-industrial and post-consumer waste. Meanwhile, detoxification is minimising the adverse impacts of materials’ chemical waste by replacing hazardous materials; using cleaner technologies; reducing the toxic properties of waste streams; restricting the use of specified materials; and in-situ waste treatment.

While detoxification reduces the amount of dangerous material, dematerialisation minimises the use. Different industries implement these two approaches differently. Dematerialisation can also be accomplished by combining the use of raw and recycled materials.

The small-scale plastic recycling machine

Waste must not be disposed to landfills without control, incinerated in the open, or ended up in waterways. Circular economy is increasingly being considered as a necessity, but this is still not forefront in practice. There should be well-linked approaches involving stakeholders at the national and international levels, as well as plans for resource and waste management integrated into the economic system.

Environmental NGOs and CSOs should work hand-in-hand with policymakers to tackle the problems. A social enterprise based in Malaysia; Biji-biji Initiative supports the Green agenda by recycling materials from different resources. The recent installation, which has been displayed at a public space in Iskandar Puteri, Johor, utilises metal waste to create sculptures. The materials are mostly secondary, with 70 per cent being recovered from car parts collected from local workshops and 20 per cent from any scrapped metal. Only 10 per cent of the material is new. We disassemble the cars by hand so there is no use of machinery to minimise carbon footprint.

The increasing activities from industrial and societal systems have polluted soils with heavy metals across the globe—arsenic, lead, cobalt and mercury are among the many toxic metals. They can be reduced by detoxifying the materials before utilising them to create installations. Biji-biji Initiative is also working on tackling plastic waste issues through the Beyond Bins campaign. Beyond Bins introduces small-scale recycling solutions while promoting an alternative source of income for the community through the production and selling of recycled products. The small-scale recycling machine, inspired by the open-source project Precious Plastic founded by Dave Hakkens, allows users to shred and mould the plastics into new products. The plastic is collected from consumer and manufacturing wastes. They are cleaned, sorted and shredded on-site before being repurposed for products such as house/office ornaments or stationary items.

Biji-biji Initiative contributes to waste management in Malaysia by recovering resources from ending in the landfills. This is one of the many approaches to tackle climate change issues. Resource recovery should also be accompanied by reducing consumption by the industry and society. The Malaysian government is now drafting more aggressive action plans to combat illegal waste disposal and to manage waste in general. By considering the material flow, it is hoped that the policies will also cover dematerialisation and detoxification programmes.

Biji-biji Initiative is an impact-driven agency that aims to create a mindset change and behavioural shift towards sustainable living. We strive to inspire people into thinking and acting sustainably, collaboratively and constructively. Our journey began in 2013 when a group of four visionaries set out to change the sustainability scene in Malaysia through progressive ideas while changing the perceptions on how people see issues of waste and sustainability. The word Biji means seeds and at Biji-biji Initiative, our mission is to plant seeds for a better tomorrow.


[1] What a Waste 2.0: A Global Snapshot of Solid Waste Management to 2050


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