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Connecting the dots toward making Sabah a leader in circular green and blue economy

From a shared vision, partnerships, financial support to state-of-the-art technologies and services

EU Ambassador to Malaysia H.E Michalis Rokas (left) speaking with Asia Times Pulse Deputy Chief Editor/Borneo Pulse co-founder Leonard Alaza

Empty mineral water bottles strewn on the ground with other kinds of trash by the side of a road going inside a poverty-stricken fishing village just outside of the city create quite an eyesore.

Though it is a pain to see, the discarded waste can fill an empty pocket and stomach. If only the villagers knew their monetary value.

Such a sight at the village is very common in so many places in Sabah, a state in Borneo that is celebrated worldwide for its high value biological diversity and amazing natural wonders.

No one knows how big the problem is and how it is to be dealt with differently. But efforts are ongoing to get into the science behind this by interest groups such as Blu Hope and the Tropical Research and Conservation Centre (TRACC). The goal is to establish, first in KK then the whole of Sabah, a circular waste collection system where people will no longer we just pile all the garbage into dustbins and fill landfills.

The ocean tosses all kinds of trash including what is left of this old mattress. In a circular economy, this probably would have value.

Nevertheless, there has been a growing realisation in Sabah that the way forward for the state is to go for ‘Plastic Neutrality’. Unleash this and endless opportunities will follow. After all, many countries have successfully gone down this path and witnessed how the transition has had an immensely positive impact on their economy, environment and quality of life.

Plastic Neutrality means that for every amount of plastic created, a measured equivalent of plastic waste is recovered and removed from the environment through recycling/waste management efforts or plastic offset credits.

Being a state where its seas are awash with trash – so as on land – Sabah can emulate Timor-Leste to recycle all its plastic waste and create value from them. This tiny nation set its sights on becoming the first country in the world to recycle all its plastics alongside the construction of a multi-million revolutionary recycling plant to ensure no plastic would become waste but instead be turned into biodiesel.

The European Union, which adopted a European strategy for plastics in 2018 as part of its circular economy action plan, is more than willing to form a strategic partnership with the Sabah Government and key players to help Sabah make the transition toward becoming Malaysia’s first Plastic Neutral state.

But before any partnerships can be formed, becoming Plastic Neutral must be Sabah’s top development agenda. After all, as the saying goes, it takes two to tango.

“If the local authorities say circular economy or waste management is a priority, in the EU we can look at the possibility of funding or supporting the local initiatives,”EU Ambassador to Malaysia H.E Michalis Rokas told Borneo Pulse.

The EU has been supporting several projects in Sabah such as those involving wildlife conservation and indigenous peoples.

Rokas made his first fact-finding mission to the state hosted by WWF-Malaysia, last week.

“I come to see areas that are the priority of the state and its people, and to see how we can match the financing that could be available from the EU. I went to east Sabah, Tabin (Wildlife Reserve), a few plantations and I saw the restoration work in the forest done by some NGOs. I also witnessed the restoration of wildlife corridors by some plantations and I participated in an aerial survey to see some of the challenges and problems that still exist like plastic, waste management,” said Rokas, who also made a courtesy call on the Sabah Chief Minister Datuk Seri Hajiji Noor during his work visit.

He went on to add:  “I come here to connect with Sabah and the people, and to see the challenges and problems they face as well as the progress they’ve achieved. From these, I want to see how we can form collaborations between the EU and Sabah and create partnerships on sustainable development.”

UN Sustainable Development Goals #17: Achieving the ambitious targets of the 2030 Agenda requires a revitalized and enhanced global partnership that brings together Governments, civil society, the private sector, the United Nations system and other actors, mobilising all available resources. Meeting implementation targets, including the raising of funds, is key to realizing the Agenda.

“I’ve seen many good ideas. But we must prioritise. So, there is a bigger chance of achieving (collaborations and partnerships) if we can put what’s our priority on the state blueprint. If plastics or circular economy is a priority, we can support. If it’s wildlife or local populations or renewable energy, we can support this as well,” he said.

The EU last year adopted ambitious new targets to curb climate change with a pledge to make them legally binding. Under the new law agreed between member states and the EU Parliament, the continent would cut carbon emission by at least 55 per cent by 2030, compared with 1990 levels. This is framed as a “binding pledge for our children and grandchildren.”

But according to Rokas, unless the rest of the world shares the same commitment, it would be a challenge to move forward with the agenda.

“Even if we achieve it in Europe, without world collaboration we won’t be able to reverse as Europe alone cannot alter the trend of climate change. What we want to do is to create partnerships around the world and we have shown leadership with our green laws that are being discussed now at the EU level. Of course, we are keen to create dedicated partnerships like with Malaysia to adapt to the policies towards this end.

“I saw the blueprint and vision for Sabah toward 2030 that clearly moves toward this end. I also read that the 12th Malaysia Plan speaks about carbon neutrality by 2050. So there’s a huge amount work ahead. Most definitely we can share with Malaysian partners the know-how that could be the way forward,” he said.

On plastics, he said, the EU has acted against plastic pollution as of July last year with the ban on single use plastic products.

The strategy is a key element of Europe’s transition towards a carbon neutral and circular economy. It will contribute to reaching the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals, the Paris Climate Agreement objectives and the EU’s industrial policy objectives.

Single use plastic products are made wholly or partly of plastic and are typically intended to be used just once or for a short period of time before they are thrown away.

Strategic partnerships is what organisations like Blu Hope, which is a strong advocate for plastic neutrality and circular plastic economy in Sabah, needs to realise the agenda.

Team Forest Solutions participating in the beach cleanup

“I can’t emphasise enough how this is such a ‘mission critical’ step for Sabah. It will have a massive positive impact on social transformation and the economy.

“The rule of the thumb is that when our social systems, business practices and lifestyle becomes more sustainable, we will prosper. Nature takes care of us when we return the favour” said Simon Christopher, Blu Hope’s founder.

Coinciding Rokas’ visit was Blu Hope’s monthly beach cleanup which is a big initiative with Kota Kinabalu City Hall as part of the ‘I Love KK I Love Clean KK’ programme.

Team Kota Kinabalu City Hall
A group from Pulau Gaya posing for a photo when taking part in the beach cleanup. The island residents are constantly battling with plastic waste that get awash onto their beach. But the problem might provide some sort of a blessing when Blu Hope’s effort finally establishes the real monetary value of plastic within Sabah’s green and blue circular economy.

The initiative, the first of its kind focuses on quantitative and qualitative cleaning to obtain scientific data on trash awash on beaches in the city, all aimed towards making Sabah Plastic Neutral in five years.

Hazel Oakley (right) from Tropical Research and Conservation Centre (TRACC) weighing a bag of plastic waste. Scientific data is critical for the development of a circular waste management system in Sabah.

Meanwhile, two leading Finnish companies, RiverRecycle Ltd, and Clewat Ltd, specializing in providing solution to plastic waste, also touched down in the city to explore the possibility of bringing their state-of-the-art technologies and services to Sabah.

RiverRecycle’s technology concentrates floating waste from rivers, enabling its easy removal. The company’s goal is to stop plastic waste from entering the oceans while creating long-lasting positive impacts.

RiverRecycle has created a unique business model called ‘River cleaning as a free service™’to offer problem owners – national and local governments – a sustainable river cleaning service without need for constant funding. Its patented technology effectively cleans the rivers from plastic pollution and the circular business model provides hosting communities with decent jobs, social and environmental improvement

“It’s our mission to remove plastic waste from the world’s waterways and enable the most affected communities to prosper in a circular economy.

“With the target to install 500 RiverRecycle’s cleaning and recycling points in the next eight years, we are currently active in nine countries and two continents.

“Using our solution, as we work in a circular economy, we can reduce the amount of plastic going into the ocean from the rivers. This will be good to the environment and the communities,” said the company’s COO Mr. Janne Nuutinen.


RiverRecycle works together with Clewat, a company that also focuses on solving plastic waste, excess biomass, oil spills and other pollution problems in the oceans,lakes and rivers.

It develops and manufactures water cleaning vessels that are able to clean up garbage and micro plastics from waterways.The vessels are currently manufactured using aluminum; however, in the near future, Clewat will start to use HDPE plastic instead, which is partly recycled and also a more environmentally friendly material compared to aluminum.

SAVING THE SEAS: Clewat’s water cleaning vessel

“We can collect from the water up to half a millimetre-sized particles and our vessels can collect up to 200 cubic meters of garbage per hour,” said Mikael Vaitti, Clewat Ltd’s Country Head for Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia.


Both company representatives, together with Business Finland Senior Advisor Mohamed Farid, had made the courtesy call on the Sabah Chief Minister with Michalis Rokas, Blu Hope, WWF-Malaysia and Stop Fish Bombing Malaysia.

Rokas (left) during a courtesy call on Sabah Chief Minister Datuk Seri Hajiji Noor – Bernama photo

With all the dots – from a shared vision to develop a circular economy, local and international partnerships, financial support and technologies – all there to be connected, Sabah has everything to gain. It can set a leadership example of how the Borneo state can prosper with a well-designed green and blue circular economy for the rest of world to watch, follow and support.

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