Seberang Perai: Malaysia’s Super Waste Management City

1 June 2024

by Bryan Yong

A city council officer enforces the municipal circular economy roadmap by engaging with and encouraging communities, industries, businesses, and schools to carry out waste management initiatives.

What if an entire city is an eco-project? It would mean that communities in a city are working together towards the same environmental goal. We can expect the government to be involved in the movement on a big scale.

Take a look at Southeast Asia. Krabi province is leading Thailand’s renewable energy transition with their ‘Krabi Goes Green’ campaign set to supply 100 per cent renewable energy to the province by 2026. Meanwhile, trailblazing environmental policies to eradicate plastic pollution in Quezon City in Manila, Philippines, have earned their mayor a 2023 Champion of the Earth for Policy Leadership, one of the UN’s highest environmental honours.

EcoCupid wanted to know what a local government that does groundwork with communities to enforce their environmental policies looks like. So, the team visited Seberang Perai City in Penang, Malaysia to meet the people behind Malaysia’s super waste management city.

Malaysia’s Highest Recycling Rate City

Seberang Perai is a city in the Malaysian state of Penang, facing the more popular island of Penang. It is a city. The city is a menagerie of industrial hubs, commodity crop agriculture, and rural fishing communities. Photo courtesy of EcoCupid.

Seberang Perai, a coastal city interweaved with industries, fisheries, and agriculture, boasts the highest recycling rate in Malaysia at 57 per cent, with ambitions to reach 70 per cent. This target is higher than the national target of 40 per cent by 2025, and the baseline average of around 33 per cent.

Seberang Perai City Council, also known as Majlis Bandaraya Seberang Perai (MBSP) in Malay, is the mastermind behind the city’s success in waste management. MBSP focuses on circular and green economy. They aim to treat 100 per cent domestic solid waste using strategies like waste-to-protein, waste-to-compost, and waste-to-energy. MBSP even connects recycling industries that lack supply material with communities such as fishermen, foreign workers, and residents to collect recyclable waste.

However, like all policymakers, MBSP is challenged to convince local communities to participate despite already being aware of waste management issues. A lot of groundwork remains to push for environmental solutions in his community.

“There is no such thing as waste because every residual stream can be used to make a new product”, said the mayor of MBSP, Mayor Azhar Arshad. Carrying the legacy of his predecessors, Mayor Arshad continued to enforce an ambitious Seberang Perai Circular Economy Roadmap.

Portrait of Mayor Azhar Arshad. Photo courtesy of EcoCupid.

He explained that Seberang Perai’s population will reach 1.3 million by 2030, and is projected to produce 1.8 million tonnes of waste annually by then. While the numbers alone may be scary, he is more concerned with countering poor people’s participation in waste management initiatives. He said that MBSP surveyed that 80 per cent of the city’s residents are aware of recycling but less than 40 per cent are practicing it willingly.

For the roadmap to work, MBSP needs to reach out to and collaborate with every stakeholder in the community.

Community Engagement Middleman

Meet Chew Eng Seng. At 70 years old, Chew is the Head of the Sustainable Community Unit of MBSP. Since 2013, he was personally appointed by the previous mayor to oversee all environmental programmes. A very hands-on and easy-going person, his main job is to be MBSP’s environmental ‘salesman’ — going out and engaging with communities, industries, and institutions to create awareness and coordinate environmental campaigns.

Chew’s work sounds like a dream job to most environmentalists. He believes it’s a wonderful job. “I am very fortunate, that whatever I want to do, people have the positive thinking to work together with MBSP”, said the passionate 70-year-old environmentalist.

EcoCupid followed Chew on his daily trips to check on the communities that MBSP is working with.

Food Waste Circular Economy

Seberang Perai generates 230,000 tonnes of food waste annually. Based on the roadmap, the city council wants to divert 90 per cent of this away from landfills by 2030. MBSP needed someone incentivised to collect the food waste, someone who could make commercial value out of it.

So, Chew invited an environmental technology company called K Green Enviro Tech Private Company to collect food waste from food markets, restaurants, department stores, and even hospitals across the city. The company then converts the food waste into compost which they sell commercially.

K Green’s sales and marketing specialist, Koay Hean Heong told EcoCupid that MBSP provided them with a collection point cum office at Bagan Ajam Market, a community market snug tightly between busy overpasses and compact residential zones. The collection point acts as a central point for food waste shipments across the city before being transferred to their large-scale composting facility.

Koay showed EcoCupid an example of their collection system in the wet market adjacent to his office. He gave every wet market vendor a 20-litre volume bucket to collect discarded vegetable and meat cuttings. Once they are full, vendors empty their buckets and the process continues.

Fortunately, vendors were more than happy to cooperate. They even complained that the 20-litre buckets were not enough. In 2023 alone, Bagan Ajam Market vendors worked with Koay to convert 10 tonnes of food waste into compost.

Koay deploys 20-litre buckets for market vendors to collect their discarded food waste which will be used to make compost. Photo courtesy of EcoCupid.

“Since we’re an environmental business, we thought why not try to use our machines to make compost and collaborate with MBSP”, said the eager businessman.

Besides composting, Chew also looked at black soldier fly larvae farming. A common waste management solution that doubles as a fertiliser and animal feed industry, Chew actively encourages breeders to do business out of this.

Jack Khor became convinced and founded Penang Black Soldier Fly Biotech Farm in a rural oil palm plantation owned by his family. In a small but ventilated shed that smelled like tofu and flour, trays of larvae voraciously devour expired raw food materials. Khor was adept at collecting food scraps, leftover ingredients, and expired food stocks from industries as cheap feeding stock for his flies.

Every gram of larvae can digest 3 kg of food waste a day, said Khor. Whatever the larvae excrete becomes fertiliser, which Khor swears by its quality.

“He was telling me about the benefits of breeding black soldier flies. He even introduced me to industries that can purchase my larvae as animal feed”, said Khor, pointing out that fish and chicken farms are his usual larvae buyers.

Khor cares for his black soldier flies with passion, often interbreeding them with other breeders to maximise his yield. Photo courtesy of EcoCupid.

Convincing Fishermen to Recycle

Besides food waste, MBSP also aims to reduce plastic waste. Chew introduced EcoCupid to fishing communities that recycle discarded fishing nets together with MBSP.

Seberang Perai has 16 fishing villages, and Chew is trying hard to get all of them to recycle fishing nets. One of these villages is Sungai Tembus Fishing Village, where EcoCupid met with village leader Muhd Ali Hamzah bin Md Sod, a man in his 40s. He works as both a fisherman and an eco-tour guide.  

Ali recalled that fishermen used to burn fishing nets right behind their houses. Some nets are made of nylon, which releases toxic chemicals when burnt. Then things changed when Chew came up with a solution.

He encouraged Ali and his villagers to collect plastic nets and plastic bottles for recycling. As a middleman, he negotiated with plastic recycling factories that could buy the nets at a higher-than-market price. Factories have results to show for their corporate social responsibility and fishermen can earn more if they recycle.

And so, the fishermen collected their plastic nets and Chew personally brought them to recycling factories for sale. People stopped burning fishing nets now because they saw the commercial value in them.

A fisherman collecting discarded fishing nets. Discarding the nets is usually the last resort after the fisherman used them beyond repair. Photo courtesy of EcoCupid.

Young and Old Come Together

Besides recycling, this city also upcycles. Chew works closely with a group of senior volunteers who upcycle multilayered plastic — almost impossible to recycle because of the difficulty of separating the layers of plastic and aluminum — into handicraft bags and decorations.

The group, Kepala Gajah Residents Association, works closely with MBSP to organise exhibitions and volunteer events to sell their upcycled products for charity. Since 2010, they set up a community recycling centre which has recycled 440 tonnes of waste thus far.

Kepala Gajah Residents Association poses proudly with the upcycled handbags and decorative handicrafts, all made from multilayer plastic. Photo courtesy of EcoCupid.

One thing that Chew enjoys the most is to engage with youths. He coordinates the city council’s Green School programme, where 48,000 students from 86 schools all over the city are invited to compete to be the most sustainable school.

Schoolchildren are taught how to recycle, upcycle, and also to sell the products they make. Meanwhile, schools will be judged for cleanliness, landscape, and community involvement. Winning schools such as Convent Butterworth High School set an example for communities and other schools to visit and learn.

As the saying goes, it takes a village to raise a child. For Seberang Perai, it takes a city to tackle waste management. ~

Our featured Eco-Hero

Seberang Perai City Council is Malaysia’s best-performing city in recycling waste with a municipal circular economy roadmap. Based in Seberang Perai City, Penang, Malaysia, Seberang Perai City Council focuses on setting up a sustainable community unit to convince all their stakeholders to adopt the roadmap’s waste management initiatives. You can reach out to them at

This article was produced in collaboration with the Institute for Global Environmental Strategies (IGES) through the ASEAN SDGs Frontrunner Cities Programme Phase 2

Bryan Yong

Bryan Yong is a freelance environmental journalist and chief editor for EcoCupid. With a background in oceanography and experience volunteering with youth environmental NGOs in Malaysia, he brings curiosity and enthusiasm to discover Southeast Asia’s environmental movement through his stories. Bryan is an avid traveller and loves local food the most.

© 2024 EcoCupid all rights reserved.