Green Penang leads the way

Updated: 21 Aug 2012

The state of Penang has gone green all over by banning plastic bags and declaring George Town car-free on Sundays. Rebecca Duckett-Wilkinson looks into what other initiatives are taking place and the people behind these efforts

Google the words ‘Cleaner and greener’ and popping up third on the list is the ‘Cleaner Greener Penang’ initiative ( The state of Penang wants to create a cleaner and greener island, improve the quality of life and encourage healthier living through sustainable approaches, which can only encourage and attract investment from all quarters. It is also fierce in its attitude that the best way to achieve this is through direct interaction with the corporate sector and local community, what it terms as a tripartite agreement.

The management of solid waste and making the environment greener is the antithesis to being glamourous and to most of us would be repulsive. It involves household garbage, rubbish discarded at wet markets, rotting flesh, food waste, bad smells, toilets, rodent and pest control, blocked drains, the wider area issues of garbage collection and disposal, recycling initiatives, monitoring of food outlets, traffic control and public transport, and education to make the public more aware. It is daunting to say the least, but in Penang there is a face to this campaign.

Calm and collected, Yang Berbahagia Chow Kon Yeow is often in the press, publicising campaigns that revolve around the ‘Cleaner, Greener Penang’ initiative but this is also a guy who walks the talk and he out with the public picking up rubbish at various gotong-royong efforts around the island, posing for photos next to heaps of dead rats and cajoling the community into action. It is hard not to support an initiative when there’s a face that is willing to get dirty and it is impressive to see people from all walks of life taking part and wanting to make a contribution to their home island. However, it is also very clear that this initiative is about team effort and YB Chow is all about giving credit and opening the campaign up to anyone who can contribute. The tag line is available for anyone to use in order to spread the word. Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng also got in on the act and launched the ‘Clean Toilet Campaign’ on March 9 this year. It may make us giggle but this is a campaign that really has to be supported. A competition will take place and awards given out in November.

The Penang Green Team relies heavily on the work of the two councils – Municipal Council of Penang Island (MPPP) and Municipal Council of Province Wellesley (MPSP) – and the Ministry of Public Works (JKR). Interested parties can collaborate in projects with the government by getting involved with MPPP (+604 263 7637) and MPSB (+604 537 2658). Additional team players come in the form of local communities, individuals, NGOs,schools, associations, institutions, uniformed bodies (the Scouts, Girl Guides, RELA), parent-teacher associations, government agencies such as Forestry and Environment as well as the media. The state hopes to see all parties embrace this initiative. There are abbreviations that need to be understood. The three important ‘C’s (Crime, Cleanliness and Congestion) have been identified as the key areas to be resolved and the three ‘R’s (Reduce, Reuse and Recycle) are how we can achieve minimum waste. It’s easy to knock this kind of jargon but change is coming to Penang through these abbreviations.

Penang was the first state to declare that it would reduce plastic bags and working with major supermarkets, department stores and other retail chains, Penang is managing to change the mindset. The people of Penang have taken this on and now it’s great to see people refusing plastic bags at the counter and bringing their own shopping bags to market. For this successful campaign we have a councilor, Phee Boon Poh, to thank. After plastic bags, polystyrene is being especially targeted at events, religious and otherwise, around Penang. There is also currently a policy of ‘No Polystyrene’ in government and council food complexes.

Councilors and other bodies are encouraged to take up a cause and with some funding from the state; they follow through with very individual projects that the community then takes on. On the island and in Seberang Prai, corporations have come in and adopted roundabouts and in another beautification project, professional bodies are working to create a linear park on the Prai River. In Bukit Jambul, the PBA (Water Authorities) work with the local Hikers Association to maintain the natural environment but also allow for easy access to those who enjoy the outdoors.

There is also a lot of greening going on. Datuk Keramat and Weld Quay are all awaiting a Carnarvon Street make-over and tree planting initiatives are being made here. Little park areas are slowly but surely being improved and even if these spaces are awkward to use, they do add calm and green areas to your line of vision. The establishment of a Parks and Gardens Department in local council is also seen as important.

In Seberang Prai, there is also an initiative involving a compost machine located at a wet market. It is hoped that this initiative can be set up to deal with about tons of rubbish from wet markets around the state. In this case, the idea was initiated by a private company who would provide the machines and collect the waste, transporting it to an area provided, where it can process and convert the waste into organic compost. The company would then be able to earn on the resale of its organic compost and the state benefits by reducing its collection and tipping costs. This is the sort of win-win situation Penang is looking at engaging in. The local government is open to serious proposals from all quarters that provide real solutions which can certainly provide great financial benefit if conceived and managed appropriately.

Penang Island creates 800 tons of solid waste a day. Within the George Town city area, surveys have been made with the co-operation of the recycling businesses that are thriving within. It is heartening to note that Penang has the highest percentage of recycling throughout the entire country. In 2010 it was noted that 23 per cent of its waste was recycled, increasing to 26 per cent in 2011. This translates to a whopping saving of RM2.2 million in tipping operations that the state does not need to pay for. It is amazing that the men and women on rickshaws and bicycles who go round rifling through dumpsters and garbage bags at night, collecting and then delivering their spoils to recycling depots, can make such a difference. It is also a huge nod in favour of keeping these small recycling operations going on in town. Not only do they allow collectors to generate their own income, rubbish is efficiently cleared off the streets. The only improvement to the process but possibly the hardest to implement, would be to get residents to manage and separate out their rubbish. If you want to find out more about recycling and household composting, user manuals and the Penang Island Recycling Directory can be found online at Solid Waste Management (

The problems of garbage collection and cleaning (the core business of the council) are never ending and thegeneral view of ‘out of sight, out of mind’ is a hard concept to change. Even on the micro level, authorities have instigated a sticker campaign that states ‘Do not throw rubbish out of your car’. Pick up your own stickers from the Socio-Economic and Environmental Research Insititute (10 Jalan Brown. +604 228 3306).

Other initiatives include monitoring food outlets and hawker stalls. The impact of these on a wider scale cannot be ignored. Grease into the open drainage system taints our seas with toxic effluent. The use of grease traps is already in the bylaws but what is really needed is a concerned individual to take the issue by the horns and start the process of awareness and action. All this takes time and during my conversation with YB Chow, issues of maintenance of grease traps did come up. Who will collect the grease? Many food operators may indeed put in the traps but the maintenance is ignored. No one wants the nasty jobs but as YB Chow stated, the waste industry is essentially an eco-industry and perhaps, here again lies an opportunity for an entrepreneurial soul to think outside the box.

On the issues of environment and quality of life, traffic and emissions cannot be ignored. While a traffic management plan is still in the offing, it is good news to hear that the free CAT buses that ply a set route round inner George Town, have proved so popular that the state is looking at the possibility of adding new routes in the larger George Town area – adding other modules to the free CAT bus family in the hope of reducing cars on roads. Cycling is encouraged and the increase in cyclists all over Penang’s roads does indicate a change in mind set to transportation. Councilor Lim Mah Hui can be seen on his bike wearing his helmet, practicing what he preaches and the beginnings of limited car-free zones on Sundays have been put into action. Individuals, groups and NGOs are all gaining momentum and changes, albeit small, are starting to be noticed.

Certain groups and institutions have also taken up the call. The Lions Group is always a big presence at community gatherings and their volunteers make handson contributions. Developers have jumped on the bandwagon in a way to promote their brands and more roundabouts around the island are decorated with various signage or sculptures. One developer initiated an enzyme mud ball campaign where volunteers made thousands of mud balls by hand which were then thrown into the muddy silt of Gurney Drive to eat up the smells. However, it is hard to quantify initiatives like this. The impact of the right initiative creating a positive effect in a local community is what creates change. Penang needs more of this.

One of the most wonderful initiatives has been that of the Tzu Chi Organisation. Back in 1997 they launched a program where volunteers set out to collect recyclables and identified collection points for the public to drop off their paper, plastic and glass. Armed with the phrase ‘Turn garbage into gold and gold into love’, earnings from recycling generated enough funds for them to operate the Tzu Chi Dialysis Centre (19-B Jalan Gottlieb. +604 229 7211/ providing free treatments for destitute patients. They have successfully mobilized volunteers and harnessed the amazing earning power of garbage for the greater good.

It is this concept of the greater good that, when grasped, can make the Cleaner Greener Penang initiative successful. The people of Penang seem ready to initiate a real tangible change in their mindset towards protecting the environment and healthier living. As each positive change contributes to the momentum of this campaign, Penang can be guided to become a sustainable island which attracts ideal investors who genuinely work to ensure that their own developments and projects are sustainable, cleaner and greener.

Tags: Features