ASEAN Cities Innovate to Tackle Organic Waste

In ASEAN cities, ‘waste management’ is persistently cited as the top challenge faced by local governments. Ideally, ‘sound’ waste management approaches should be grounded in scientific principles, utilise appropriate technologies, be financially feasible and also socially sensible – a demanding package far from the grasp of many cities.

So far, considerable attention has been paid to the non-biodegradable, inorganic fraction (e.g. packaging, plastics, metals etc.), even though organic and biodegradable waste (e.g. food and kitchen waste) form the bulk of municipal waste in most developing cities. Arguably, innovative interventions targeting this majority waste stream is a crucial part of solving the waste challenge in ASEAN.

In my work under the ASEAN ESC Model Cities Programme, I am very encouraged to be observing the unfolding of a movement for sustainable food and organic waste management among local governments.

Here are three stories to share:

Surabaya, Indonesia

About 10 years ago, Indonesia’s second-largest city, Surabaya, was a grey, dirty city with overflowing landfills and litter-defaced streets. In 2004, these woes finally compelled city leaders to tackle waste seriously. Through several years of collaborative R&D with Japan’s Kitakyushu City, an enhanced method of composting was developed based on the science of fermentation. Accelerated decomposition, a key feature, rendered the method feasible for deployment in households and in composting centres in congested areas. The microorganisms and the formula for making the seed compost were derived from local ingredients, while the practices were adapted to fit local social systems.

A citywide campaign led by a highly committed leader in collaboration with the private sector, NGOs and other actors, enabled composting to be rapidly scaled up. Compost stimulated interest in planting and home gardens, which greened and beautified streets and parks. Eventually, landfill waste was reduced by 30% in just five years. The famed ‘Surabaya Model’ of composting is now being replicated to other ASEAN cities. Nevertheless, Surabaya’s city officers are not resting on their laurels – they are continuing their international cooperation efforts in many environmental sectors, and have recently begun to experiment with community-scale biogas systems at its composting centres.

One of Surabaya’s composting centres. (Photo: Author)
A pilot community-based biogas system being trialed at the composting centre. (Photo: Author)

Muangklang, Thailand

Muangklang Municipality, a small town of 16,000 people, brands itself as a Model ‘Low Carbon Municipality’ of Thailand and ASEAN. It is helmed by Mayor Somchai Chariyacharoen, who boldly embraces sustainability science and technology through the municipality’s two low carbon learning centres.

A notable innovation is a locally-designed waste segregation conveyor belt system, built at a tiny fraction of the costs of foreign commercialised systems. Sales of recyclables bring in consistent profits. Meanwhile, organic wastes are turned into useful Effective Microorganism (EM) liquid, processed in a biogas facility, composted or fed to what the Mayor lovingly calls his ‘animal staff and natural waste processors’ – pigs, rabbits, cows, geese, worms and other animals. Compost and liquid fertilisers are applied to public parks and food crops. Organic farming courses, taught by local farmers and professors, are actively promoted. Eggs from the centre’s chickens and geese are distributed for free back to citizens who segregated the organic waste. All of these reinforce the concept of sound material cycles.

One of Muangklang’s latest initiatives is the re-construction of a century-old heritage house at the municipality’s new low carbon learning centre, which is complemented by a primary school teaching sustainability science and local wisdom.

The locally-designed waste segregation conveyor belt system at Muangklang’s first Low Carbon Learning Centre, which receives an average of 3 – 5 study delegations per month (Photo: Muangklang Municipality; used with permission)
Biogas facility and EM liquid production at Muangklang’s Low Carbon Learning Centre (Photo: Muangklang Municipality; used with permission)

North Kuching, Malaysia

A final story I’d like to share happened at North Kuching in East Malaysia, another aspiring ASEAN Model City. It has resolved to halve its daily waste by 2020, with composting as a key strategy. In 2012, our programme assisted city officers to receive training on various composting methods in Japan and Thailand, and subsequently, expert ‘mentors’ were invited to ‘audit’ their application of the acquired knowledge and skills. One of the mentors was Dr. Yoshida, an eminent composting expert from Japan.

Dr. Yoshida was ushered into the community hall of one of city’s rural villages, which had piloted an anaerobic home composting system called ‘Bokashi’ composting, which produces leachate as a by-product that can be used as liquid fertiliser. The villagers’ composting buckets and leachate samples were lined up for inspection. Alas, a foreign expert’s visit was very rare and the city officer could not impose order on the unusually excited, noisy villagers.

Ignoring the excitement, Dr. Yoshida held up a bottle of leachate, unscrewed the cap and inhaled deeply. Then, without warning, he took a wholehearted swig (drink) of the leachate, signaling his approval with a final smacking of lips.

In a split second, a shattering silence descended, filled with the invisible screams and screeching mental brakes.

Goodness! Did this man just drink a mouthful of our disgusting, filthy, possibly toxic rubbish water?

When it became apparent that Dr. Yoshida would not keel over and die, the villagers erupted in applause.

After that, they eagerly hung upon every word of Dr. Yoshida’s lecture, soaking up knowledge about good microorganisms, composting techniques and the importance of sound material circulation to human and environmental health. A truly authentic learning experience.

The crucial enabling factor, I realised, wasn’t simply because of the stunt. Rather, it was because only a scientist like Dr. Yoshida, empowered by his mastery of science, dared to consume what he knows beyond doubt to be a harmless brew of good microbes, ably convincing others to challenge their default perceptions (irrational aversion to anything garbage-related) and to learn the facts.

Villagers’ pilot composting outputs waiting to be inspection by Dr. Yoshida. (Photo: Author)
A moment before Dr. Yoshida’s jaw-dropping act which silenced the villagers. (Photo: Author)
A demonstration on how to properly utilise compost in planting. (Photo: Author)

Looking forward in ASEAN ….

In pursuit of sustainable cities, local governments and communities are being increasingly encouraged to develop and test new interventions, many of which would be technically complex and require validation through rational, evidence-based approaches, as well as rigorous monitoring and analysis of impacts and results. In our work, it is still difficult to identify scientists and experts who can work with us in particular cities and oversee such validation and analysis.

Therefore, it is my hope that members of the scientific community – in universities, government or research institutes – will strive to more actively engage aspiring local governments as partners to help solve real-world problems with far-reaching impacts on present and future human well-being.


About the Guest Blogger

Shom Teoh 

Shom Teoh is Programme Manager, Sustainable Cities at the Institute for Global Environmental Strategies (IGES), Japan. She works primarily on the ASEAN ESC Model Cities Programme, which provides seed funding, technical assistance and other resources to help ASEAN’s aspiring model sustainable cities realise their visions and goals. Her current research interests are in sustainable cities, climate change and behavioral economics. A former journalist, she loves to collect and disseminate stories on human aspiration, creativity and flourishing, as well as triumph against adversity.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the official opinion of IGES.