Trashed Islands a Snapshot of Polluted Malaysia

Islands are creaking under the weight of mismanaged rubbish, an alarm bell for Malaysia’s pollution issues.

Writer: Ushar Daniele

Editors: Masjalizah Hamzah & SL Wong

Published: September 30, 2022

This story is part of Macaranga’s #TanahAir Special Project.

(Cover image: Plastic bags of trash at Perhentian Kecil waiting to be collected; the larger pieces remain uncollected  |  Pic by: Ushar Daniele)

What rubbish? See what you know about waste in Malaysia.

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1. How much rubbish on average does a Malaysian produce a day?

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2. Perhentian Islands’ population is 1,800. How many tourists visit the islands a year?

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3. Which of these is least likely to encourage recycling?

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4. Malaysia’s recycling rate is 31.25%. What is the government target by 2025?

Your score is

The average score is 33%



IT IS A warm afternoon in Pulau Perhentian Kecil, off the coast of Terengganu. Locals and tourists are eating at the stalls by the main jetty. Their lunch is wrapped in waxed paper, and their drinks in plastic bags tied at the side, with plastic straws peeking out.

The waste from these meals – and more – are burying the once idyllic island and its sister island, Perhentian Besar. Rubbish, mainly plastic, is everywhere: in the village, on forest trails, beaches, the ocean’s surface and the seabed.

In fact, underwater surveys show that in 2020 and 2021, Perhentian was among the most polluted among 9 east coast islands in Peninsular Malaysia. Marine conservation NGO Reef Check Malaysia (RCM) states that this pollution is local, comprising rubbish and sewage from land.

31 islands in trouble

What’s more, pollution is worsening, and in another report on waste management in islands (2022), RCM found growing rubbish and sewage problems on all Malaysia’s 31 small, inhabited islands.

Are islands microcosms of the waste pollution that is suffocating Malaysia?

Malaysia’s solid waste has been growing in tandem with its economy and population. Solid waste management comes under local councils, who for years have struggled with inadequate infrastructure, technology and expertise, what more lack of space for landfills.

In particular, plastic waste is a major problem because it takes up to hundreds of years to biodegrade and breaks down into microscopic pieces that is harming the natural world and potentially humans.

It does not help that Malaysians are among the largest waste generators, according to the World Bank. In 2016, Malaysia’s average was 1.2 kg per capita per day – about double the East Asia and the Pacific regional average of 0.56 kg.

Rubbish goes to mainland

Perhentian comes under the Besut district council. According to RCM, the council awards annual contracts for island waste management through tenders. Using boats, the contractor collects trash from the village and resorts on beaches around the island. The waste is brought back to a landfill on the mainland.

However, Perhentian residents told Macaranga their local council has not been doing a good job.

Among issues villagers face are the irregular waste collection schedules, poor drainage, and the lack of a suitable waste collection point.

Multiple issues

“Currently the area used by villagers to dump rubbish is not strategic, an eyesore, and to resolve it requires high cost and energy,” says village chief Muhamad Zakuwan Mat Nasir. The poorly designed drainage system makes things worse. “No one is responsible for [drainage] and this makes it even worse for the villagers.”

If the weather is bad, trash collectors do not show up. Rubbish piles up for long periods. Worse, collection stops during the northeast monsoon from October to March.

“So, the villagers and people who live on the island have no choice but to burn the trash,” says yoga instructor Zen Lim. She claims there is no support from the government to improve waste management.

The Besut district office did not respond to Macaranga for interview requests.

Rubbish trail: ‘souvenirs’ left behind by tourists and locals on the Windmill Hiking Route, collected by volunteers (Ushar Daniele)

But one cannot blame only the government for the waste problem. For one, if rubbish is not collected, “trash is simply thrown in the back portion of the village,” says Siti Naquiah Fadzil, project manager of marine conservation NGO Fuze Ecoteer 

And even in places where there are bins, litter is common, for example along the nature trail.

The problem is not so much locals but tourists. Before the pandemic, the local population of 1,800 swelled by 100,000 tourists annually, according to RCM’s 2022 data. Most tourists visit during the 6 non-monsoonal months.

Worse to come

The problem is worsening, says Naquiah. As the island receives more tourists, “there are more people who will build homestays and resorts so the waste will increase.”

Meanwhile, in the blue seas that are Perhentian’s biggest draw, “we do get tourists asking us why there is so much trash in the ocean here and we actually find it hard to answer,” says dive master Mohd Ruslan Mat San. To be fair, rubbish underwater is likely to be brought by ocean currents from elsewhere too.

Sitting on the seabed in Perhentian waters: a cigarette pack, ice cream wrapper and container lid [labels masked by Macaranga] (Zen Lim)


Once corals are covered in plastic, they are 20 times more likely to get diseases. Spiky corals get it worse because they are likelier to snag plastic. “Plastic debris stresses coral through light deprivation, toxin release, and anoxia ([deprived of oxygen]), giving pathogens a foothold for invasion.”

– Source: ‘Plastic waste associated with disease on coral reefs’ (Lamb, 2018)

To be fair, RCM says in its report that standardised management for islands is impossible due to each island’s unique set of physical, economic, and social traits.

What about the rest of Malaysia?

In a written reply to Macaranga, Ministry of Housing and Local Government (KPKT) Minister Reezal Merican Naina Merican acknowledges “environmental pollution caused by improperly managed waste and (Malaysians’) lackadaisical attitudes about the issue of rubbish.”

Actions ahead

KPKT oversees local councils’ management of solid waste and devises and implements policies.

He outlines a slew of Ministry policies and programmes to address waste (see sidebar), with an emphasis on the circular economy, including a blueprint and proof of concept testing in several municipalities.


  • National circular economy council
  • Circular economy development blueprint for solid waste
  • Circular economy proof-of-concept and certification through local authorities
  • Extended producer responsibility (placing waste management responsibility on producers) 
  • Waste-to-energy facilities at landfills
  • Waste treatment at source eg anaerobic digesters and composters to reduce solid waste sent to landfills

– Source: Ministry of Housing and Local Government (KPKT) 

But Reezal adds that everyone must play their part. “At the end, it comes back to our awareness. This is what we need to ignite together, starting with the smallest unit in society, which is the family. It must start from home.”

This is pertinent particularly to the three R’s of ‘reduce, reuse, and recycle’. His ministry aims to increase the national recycling rate from the current 31.25% to 40% by 2025, says Reezal.

Separate waste

Separating waste is fundamental to solid waste management, says Dr P Agamuthu, vice-president, Society of Solid Waste Management Experts in Asia and Pacific Islands. Proper waste separation would reduce waste and increase recycling. But, among Malaysians, “the indifferent attitude is the bigger problem”.

Behavioural change is critical, particularly to fight plastic pollution, agreed environmental governance expert Dr Haliza Abdul Rahman.

“The key to this issue is awareness of the public, either on islands or urban areas nationwide… It is as simple as refusing plastic bags when out grocery shopping (but) the most important thing to do is reduce consumption of non-essential foods and goods which will contribute to the lower use of plastics for packaging.”

Volunteers jump in

Meanwhile, at Perhentian Kecil, residents are taking steps to wrestle with waste. Separating waste goes a long way here because the Reefcheck report showed that 80% of waste was organic.

Both Naquiah and Lim started projects to collect, manage, and recycle trash. The former focuses on villagers, introducing see-through mesh recycling bins which she says encourages residents to separate their trash. Lim’s Projek Waste focuses on Long Beach tourism operators and includes beach and underwater clean-ups.

Divemaster Ruslan adds that the dive operators organise ocean clean-ups by offering discounts to tourists who help collect trash from the seabed.

See-through containers encourage waste separation (top). Separated waste is housed in a rubbish collection facility built by the local council which is unused by locals and trash collectors because it is inconveniently located. (Ushar Daniele)
See-through containers encourage waste separation (top). Separated waste is housed in a rubbish collection facility built by the local council which is unused by locals and trash collectors because it is inconveniently located. (Ushar Daniele)

Education is a key part of these efforts. “While the recycling initiative is great, we could improve it with more awareness amongst locals and tourists,” says village chief Zakuwan.

But Lim says for islanders, other issues such as the unreliable electricity supply are a bigger worry than rubbish, lowering waste management as a priority. “Honestly, they don’t really have a choice because they’re not as educated on the effects or consequences of burning trash. So ultimately the easiest way to get rid of trash is by burning it.”

Still, with these efforts, trash is managed a little better; at least there are attempts to separate and recycle.

Poor governance

Ultimately, an uninformed public indicates a lack of governance in the waste management sector, says Haliza.

“The final controlling authority in most of the issues related to the environment is the government itself.” Government should show commitment to sustainability by example, incorporate it in public policy and implement the policy.

Back on Perhentian, something as simple as consultation could solve the issue, says Naquiah. “If there is no direct communication between the stakeholders on the island, the local community and the agencies, how can you collectively agree on one [waste management] system?”

Lam, J. et al. 2018. Plastic waste associated with disease on coral reefs. DOI: 10.1126/science.aar3320

Malaysia’s Roadmap Towards Zero Single-Use Plastics 2018–2030. Ministry of Energy, Science, Technology, Environment & Climate Change, 2018.

Manaf, Latifah Abd et al. “Municipal solid waste management in Malaysia: practices and challenges.” Waste management (New York, N.Y.) vol. 29,11 (2009): 2902-6. DOI:10.1016/j.wasman.2008.07.015

Reef Check Malaysia. 2020. Status of Coral Reefs in Malaysia, 2020. PDF.


Reef Check Malaysia. 2021. Status of Coral Reefs in Malaysia, 2021. PDF.


Reef Check Malaysia. 2022. The Cost of Waste Management on Small Inhabited Islands in Malaysia. PDF.

This article is part of the Macaranga #TanahAir Special Project:

Series Producer: SL Wong

Editors: Law Yao Hua and Masjalizah Hamzah

Writers: Lee Kwai Han, Ashley Yeong and Ushar Daniele

Translators: Adriana Nordin Manan and Mun Yee San & team

Supported by:

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