Brown Waste

Waste as a Resource: Exploring Practical Uses of Mulch from Australia to Malaysia

(Cowritten with Irfan Mohamed)

Waste is a matter of perception. Our modern consumerist society has come up with arbitrary definitions of what is useful and what is not. It assumes that in the process of consumption, we will be left with byproducts that serve no further function. Consumption then by definition is an unsustainable process that will inevitably lead to unwanted materials or substances which are called waste. This waste then becomes a problem for the entire society. As with many problems, it is swept under the carpet, or in other words, it is thrown in the landfill away from the city. What happens to it after that point is nobody’s concern.

In permaculture, waste is seen very, very differently. One of the core permaculture principles is ‘Produce no waste’. How is that possible? By viewing waste as an unutilized resource, that only requires our ingenuity and creativity to tap into and take advantage of. This may sound like an idealistic perspective, but from the grassroots view, it is the most pragmatic way to ensure resource efficiency. We will explore an overseas example of this principle in practice to illustrate it more. 

Australia’s Mulch Innovation

Mulch is a layer of dead organic matter that is spread over the top of the soil for various reasons. Mulch can be easily prepared through shredding of brown leaves and sticks, for example. Direct benefits of mulching include boosting the microbe growth of the soil and and allow for slow building of a rich new layer of soil. Additionally, mulch has been shown to have enough viscosity to capture water flow, including rainfall, acting as a form of buffer and reduce overflow to surrounding areas. 

Recognizing the value of mulch, the local municipal councils in Australia began to engage the public in the mulching process. The councils would regularly mulch the prunings from plants and sell this as a product cheaply to urban residents and encourage them to mulch themselves as well. The goal was to heavily mulch urban areas and prevent the loss of precious rainfall here. 

Applying Mulch Policy in Malaysia

One potential route to exploit mulching in Malaysia is to use similar practices in public parks to solve certain common urban problems. One of the major concerns in Malaysia is the prevalence of flash floods which cause traffic jams and greatly inconvenience urban dwellers.

Dried leaves which are easily found in these parks can be periodically converted to mulch and bled over the exposed areas. The mulch can capture the rainfall overflow and prevent it to from spilling over onto the nearby streets and gutters. Critically, one of the reasons for the flooding is that uncut plant matter ends up being flushed down the side gutters and clogging these drains. Having this matter converted to mulch would then ensure that the flooding effect can be noticeably reduced. 

Using this mulching method, public parks can be converted into exemplary models of urban sustainability rather just merely recreational centers. One of the points to highlight though is that what spurred on Australia’s innovation was necessity, as water is a scarcer resource and hence mulching takes on more urgency. In Malaysia’s case, though, as water is more plentiful, policymakers may be tempted out of complacency to write off such strategies of water capture. 

What is needed is a forwarding thinking strategy for solving existing issues using existing resources in urban areas, rather than creating more waste and shifting these problems to the future. 

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