What a Waste!
Professor Dr Nik Meriam Nik Sulaiman FASc’s research interests has always been grounded in environment and sustainability science with an affinity for the participation of engineers for a sustainable future. She joined University of Malaya as an academic staff in 1983 and served as an active member of the academic community for more than 30 years. While being a member of staff there, she was entrusted with several administrative portfolios including as the founding Dean of the Sustainability Science Research Cluster from 2009 to 2015. Presently, she is attached as an honorary professor in UM while continuously seeking and sharing knowledge especially with the young and the young at heart.
“What a waste” is an expression that is quite common in many cultures- the Japanese version “mottainai” is used to express regret when one feels something valuable is wasted. The closest Malay equivalent would be “oh sayangnya”. This term saw a resurgence when it was mentioned by Dr Wangari, the first African woman to win a Nobel Peace Prize in 2004. She was smitten by the term during her visit to Japan; the term encompasses three elements of responsible waste management: reduce, reuse and recycle, with an additional fourth element: respect.
Next, Dr Nik Meriam drew parallels between two languages on the word “muda”: in Japanese, “muda” means waste, while the word means “youth” in Bahasa Malaysia. She then tied up her connection with a saying by George Bernard Shaw: “youth is wasted on the young”, a “rather melancholic feeling of regret about wasting time on the young”, as she put it.
Dr Nik Meriam commenced her presentation with a trip down memory lane. She mentioned the passage she wrote for her school magazine, on how as a nine year-old she wanted to become a teacher. She also remembered the message her late father left her – “I will not leave you great wealth except education”, showing the importance her late father put on education. The value instilled upon Dr Nik Meriam coupled with her love for education since young has led to where she is now, a chemical engineer.
Next, Dr Nik Meriam mentioned several industries that utilise chemical engineering in the process, such as wastewater management, oil refinery, and glove manufacturing. Dr Nik Meriam explained that chemical engineers typically favour diagrams over writings or talking to explain how chemical processes take place. These diagrams illustrate the raw materials, utilities, people used to create the end product, byproduct, and waste. But where do these waste go? Dr Nik Meriam will explain.
Dr Nik Meriam reminded viewers that waste is not necessarily just physical such as things that you can touch, smell and see. Waste can be in terms of motion and time, such as an inefficient usage of time and manpower that becomes waste itself.
Bringing up her previous mention of her wish to become a teacher, she went into an element of teachers that may not be the first thing thought up when talking about the profession: the quintessential batik outfit. The batik industry has been recognised as a heritage and cottage industry. Wax is used by artisans as a resist material to create the patterns on fabric. Dr Nik Meriam delved into the technology used in the batik production process.
A relatively low-tech process, producing batik only requires a piece of cloth decorated with dyes and waxes. However, what consumers often do not see is the copious amount of water used in the process where the fabric is washed several times throughout the entire process. Dr Nik Meriam strives to harness chemical engineering to create a cleaner production process for the batik industry via the “Clean Batik Initiative”.
Dr Nik Meriam showed some photos of the batik production by one company, notably during the soaking and rinsing process. The fact that this company is a small one, they would not have the capital for a proper wastewater management; the wastewater (which may contain dyes, chemical residues as well as waxes/resins) would just be washed down the drain. This would prove to be detrimental to the environment. To address this problem, Dr Nik Meriam showed a diagram on how to optimise the process by emphasising specific attributes such as green and friendly processing throughout the whole process. This emphasis would assist efficient utilisation of utilities, people and raw materials to produce functional products cost-effectively while minimising waste or its impact.
One way batik wastewater is different from other forms of wastewater is the presence of waxes/resins. Formerly, batik producers would leave the rinsing water waxes/resins overnight to allow the waxes/resins to float and them skimming it off the next day. Dr Nik Meriam has proposed a hybrid physical pre-treatment that includes a two-stage system that separates the waxes/resins for easy removal, followed by a micromembrane filtration stage to remove leftover dyes.
Generally, the waste management hierarchy is an inverted pyramid that entails reducing, reusing, and recycling/composting, followed by another two elements: recovering and finally disposing. These five steps rank in order of most desirable to least desirable, with disposing being the least desirable option at the bottom of the pyramid, meaning that we need to minimise disposal of waste by optimising the four steps above it.
The true cost of waste is not always directly apparent. Waste is not simply material that is excess to requirements; it is actually misplaced resources that represent the loss of valuable organisation assets. Dr Nik Meriam used an iceberg to illustrate the hidden cost of waste: the more visible cost of effluent, skips, landfill charges as well as air pollution charges pale in comparison to its hidden and often more intangible cost such as energy use, maintenance, time, effort and lost profit, among others. In fact, the true cost of waste is such that it makes up 4 percent of turnover.
Better stewardship of waste requires an evolution of attitudes towards environmental issues. We need to move away from passive environmental protection including negative environmental impacts and regulatory non-compliance, which actively harm the environment. Active environmental protection that entails a mindset of “dirty now, clean up later” is costly and inefficient, still not a good practice. Dr Nik Meriam calls for an overall cleaner production process: cost-effective processes that use resources such as raw materials and energy efficiently as well as regulatory compliance.
Dr Nik Meriam explained that waste does not exist in nature; everything in nature has a purpose. Waste and the act of wasting is a human invention. However, wasting results in long-term consequences that harm humans, nature, and the economy.