The Best Eternity Recycle Technology Sdn Bhd paper recycling facility brings jobs and investment to Kuala Langat, but also health concerns for the communities. In this first of two stories, Aurora Tin reports on the facility’s economic values and potential impact.
Suhaizam Mohd Kassim, or Zam for short, is the third generation of his family to live in Taman Periang, Banting, about 45 km west of Kuala Lumpur. He was among the first cohort of students at a local religious primary school his grandfather helped build. Decades later, Zam enrolled his children at the same school too.
Behind that school is a patch of government land where locals grow fruit trees and vegetables. Past the trees are high grey walls, behind which rose chimneys and buildings with green roofs. The construction of the facility started in 2019. It emitted pungent odours and disturbing noises, but residents had little idea what it produced.
(Photo: Residents living next to the BERT paper recycling facility, whose twin chimneys can be seen from a nearby playground, are worried about potential health impact from the operations. | Pic by Irene Yap)
Then, in 2020, the residents discovered that a stream between the facility and the school had turned black. They had to know what went on behind those walls.
Meeting the company
The facility, 46.4 hectares or as large as 65 football fields, turned out to be a wastepaper recycling factory. It is owned by Best Eternity Recycle Technology Sdn Bhd (BERT), a Malaysian company wholly owned by Hong Kong-listed Lee & Man Paper Manufacturing Limited.
Residents started to wonder if the BERT factory would harm their community. They say the factory is only about 41 metres from a religious school.
Zam and around 30 residents began to file complaints to various authorities. On 26 July 2020, the Kuala Langat Municipal Council (MPKL) invited residents and BERT representatives to a meeting.
At the meeting, BERT representatives assured that the operation was safe and promised to give residents documented proof of approval for its development. But “they did not keep their promise,” says Zam.
Zam adds that the residents are not against development, “we just want to make sure that our health will not be negatively affected by the factory.”
BERT did not respond to requests for an interview.
Recycling waste is big business
Due to its proximity to Port Klang, the 12th busiest seaport in the world, Kuala Langat district has been for decades a destination for imported waste processing and disposal. In 2017, when China stopped accepting solid waste imports such as plastic and paper, shipments turned towards Port Klang, and recycling plants mushroomed in Kuala Langat.
Many of the new recycling plants were illegal and threatened the health of nearby communities. In 2018, the authorities shut down scores of recycling facilities in Kuala Langat following complaints by Kuala Langat residents.
But aside from waste plastic, the Chinese government had also banned the import of wastepaper. That prompted wastepaper recycling companies in China to relocate. Some, like Lee and Man Paper, came to Malaysia and started BERT.
BERT imports about 1.7 – 1.9 million tons of wastepaper every year, mainly from Europe and the United States. It turns this waste into 1.5 million tons of paper products, of which over 95% is then exported. Residues of the processing remain in Malaysia: plastic, metal, ash, and other pollutants.
The facility’s environmental impact assessment (EIA) report shows that operations will produce almost 600 tons of garbage daily. About half of the garbage would be resold or reused, and the rest incinerated on-site to generate power for operations.
More is expected: BERT’s Phase 2 project will expand annual production to 2.2 million tons. The EIA report for Phase 2 was approved by the Department of Environment (DOE) in 2021.
The RM1.1 billion invested in BERT Phase 1 and 2 facilities heralded the arrival of Chinese investors into the paper recycling industry in Banting. Upcoming facilities by leading Chinese paper mills ND Paper and Jingxing Holdings are bigger than BERT.
Such huge investments make the waste industry a palatable way to boost economic growth in the eyes of state planners. Selangor Local Government, Public Transportation and New Village Development Committee chairman Ng Sze Han said that a balance must be struck between business and the people.
“To create high-income jobs, we need big domestic and overseas investment,” says Ng. Investments should be encouraged, he says, as long as the facilities are set up in the proper places and have been approved by the DOE.
Ng emphasises that the government has nothing to hide, and that big investors have much to lose if they breach regulations.
Recycling poses pollution concern
Waste processing will cause pollution, says Dr Ahmad Fariz Mohamed at the Institute for the Environment and Development (LESTARI) in Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia. But paper mills can minimise environmental impact with technology and by adhering to regulations, he says.
However, environmentalists have criticised imported wastepaper recycling for importing foreign waste disguised as paper, making Malaysia the world’s garbage dump. They argue that the country lacks proper monitoring and enforcement.
While paper recycling contributes to a circular economy, mismanagement could easily turn it into a major polluter.
Chemical reagents are used to make paper out of wastepaper which is mixed with metals, plastics, and non-recyclable debris. In the BERT facility, operations generate hundreds of kilograms of garbage and 29 million litres of wastewater daily (Phase 2 will generate up to 65 million litres).
Residents take action
Having to eat, sleep, and breathe next to this behemoth, locals are taking the initiative to protect themselves from any potential harm.
Before BERT, Zam’s idea of environmental issues was limited to littering and that pollution is just smoke and odour. But BERT was an issue “beyond our knowledge,” says Zam.
Zam sought help from the Persatuan Tindakan Alam Sekitar Kuala Langat (PTASKL), an NGO comprising Kuala Langat residents. Since 2018, PTASKL has successfully pushed government agencies to shut down dozens of illegal recycling factories in Kuala Langat.
PTASKL guided Zam and his neighbours to document their findings.
The community has lodged complaints with a dozen government agencies in the past two years, including MPKL, DOE, and the Selangor Water Management Authority.
Some complaints led to improvement, while others triggered investigations which found no evidence to support the residents’ allegations.
And the most common response they have received, says Zam, was “we will look into it”.
On 24 July 2020, BERT’s received conditional approval to start developing its facility despite numerous unresolved public complaints. Strong protests by the local communities were widely covered in the media. Eventually, BERT took corrective actions that eased odour and noise pollution, said residents.
Still, residents at the adjacent Taman Bakti harbour mixed views of the facility that stands tall at the edge of their community.
Trust in the government and laws
Mohamad Rizuan, a resident, said the factory would harm the community’s health over time. His children study in the religious primary school next to BERT. He questioned the government for approving a factory so close to houses and schools. “It meant that the lives of ordinary people mean nothing compared to mega investments,” says Rizuan.
In contrast, another resident who appreciated the well-paid jobs offered by the facility could tolerate the noises of moving containers inside the facility at night. A shop owner was shocked that the chimneys emit gasses day and night. Still, he believed that DOE standards would prevent major problems and the government would protect the people.
Indeed, regulations had worked to some extent. Since 2019, BERT has been fined at least RM243,500 by DOE and MPKL on at least four charges. These include breaching EIA conditions; starting work without the DOE’s approval; and settling illegal squatters on government land (the settlers polluted the stream that had first alerted residents).
The industry needs a breather
Despite all the penalties and corrective actions, “it remains a reality that residents are forced to live extremely close to a hazardous heavy industry with a questionable record of compliance,” says Wong Pui Yi, coordinator of the Break Free From Plastic Asia Pacific Waste Trade Project. “[They] continue to report foul odours and noise pollution past midnight.”
On 15 March 2022, the Ministry of International Trade and Industry implemented a 2-year moratorium on Manufacturing Licenses (ML) for paper manufacturing activities. The order stops the addition and expansion of such facilities.
The Ministry states that Malaysia has been importing ever more wastepaper since 2018. The moratorium will give the government space to manage and monitor the importation of wastepaper by existing players.
More work ahead
As for Zam, he has settled into the role of an activist. He feels a greater responsibility to protect his hometown.
He joins PTASKL on field inspections, even if he has to travel out of Banting. For him, the issue is no longer restricted to the town but concerns the entire Kuala Langat district.
“We work so hard on the BERT case because what happens here will set an example for other communities,” says Zam. “Our documents may be used as a reference. That’s what we hope for.”
“People must understand that we have the right to live peacefully and get clean water and air. If we don’t do anything now, [the] same issue will happen on a larger scale later.”
For his children, “at least I can say that I have tried everything I can, and my stories might encourage their generation to continue what we have started.”
[Edited by YH Law]
Aurora Tin Fong Yun is a Malaysia-based environmental writer & columnist. She writes about waste, circular economies and low carbon futures. This story is produced with the support of Freedom Film Network and two initiatives of the International Anti-Corruption Conference: Journalists4Transparency and Films4Transparency.
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