By Zedeck Siew

Talk about a fulsome subject: Wonderland … Beyond The Bin is a new coffee-table book about trash. Like, rubbish. Literally. It’s a collection of facts and photographs about solid waste management in Malaysia.

Unfortunately, you won’t see the volume in bookstores anytime soon. Commissioned by Danish International Development Assistance (DANIDA), only 1,000 copies were printed, and these went directly to government agencies and libraries (where they’ll probably languish onto eternity, like so much buried plastic).

So we did the next best thing: we talked to photographer Suchen SK, who was responsible for most of Wonderland’s 600 pictures. Suchen lives in KL part of the time, has travelled all over the world, and his work has appeared in National Geographic, Readers Digest Asia and other magazines. Suchen tells us about the project, shares some of his photographs, and wonders what we can do to deal with the problem of trash.

Tell us about yourself and your work. How did you get into photography?

I got into photography because of my dad. He was an avid photographer, himself; grew up around cameras, basically. It’s been a hobby, and I would say it’s still a hobby — that happens to pay the bills.

Working on Wonderland must have been dramatically different from your usual stuff!

I wouldn’t say so. I have a good eye: that’s why I like photography. Maybe it’s a gift, but I’m able to see the beauty in almost anything. Making people look good is easy. But rubbish was more of a test or personal trial for me.

Is rubbish photogenic, then? What does it take to make waste look good?

Haha, rubbish is very photogenic — but I wish they took a shower before the shoot!

I don’t know how to make waste look good. I guess I just had to find the right frame or angle to make sure it sends the message that I was trying to capture.

The book was intended to bring people’s actions back to their faces. Most people don’t realise how bad the situation is, and most people don’t have a clue as to what happens to their rubbish once they throw it away. The book gives them a front seat.

How did you get into the project? You spent two months of travel for the book; did you have to plan the trip yourself?

In April this year I was approached by Ib Larsen — the chief technical advisor for Danish International Development Assistance (DANIDA) in Malaysia — together with the Ministry of Housing and Local Government.

The itinerary for the first two weeks were planned by DANIDA. The rest of the time me and Bob Renshaw (a civil engineer and photographer) rented a car and drove all over Malaysia, taking pictures of what we saw. Of rubbish.

You avoided major highways on your trip. Is there a stark urban/rural divide in this issue, or is city rubbish as badly managed as kampung rubbish?

To be honest, I think it’s worse in the cities. At least, in the kampungs, people throw (or burn) their rubbish in certain areas, and the rest of the surroundings are pretty clean. In the city … well, you know for yourself.

The state in urban areas is the same all over. Except I have to say that Marang, Terengganu, is one of the cleanest towns I’ve seen.

Did you visit any waste-to-power facilities? What were these like?

Yes, I visited one in Semenyih, Selangor: the Recycle Energy plant that’s managed by Core Competencies Sdn Bhd. It uses rubbish to generate electricity for the national grid.

I wonder: why they don’t have these kind of plants next to every landfill in Malaysia? It makes a lot of difference. If every landfill had a plant like that, the amount of rubbish that goes into landfills will be reduced — meaning we’d have more land to use.

What was the most impressive strategy in dealing with waste that you saw on your trip?

The Recycling Bank Project in a school in Penang. Basically, it functions like a bank, with saving account books. Students bring their rubbish to school, and create savings from the amount of recyclables they bring in — and they can cash out these savings whenever they like.

You photographed garbage collectors. Did you talk to any? Tell us about them.

We spent some time, whenever possible, talking to the people at the places where we took pictures. These included garbage collectors: I remember one of them complaining of backaches, from having to lift the bins into the trucks.

How would you describe the state of solid-waste management in Malaysia today? What’s at the root of the problem? Personal responsibility? Governance?

Well, like some have commented to me: “We have the hardware (technology and funds), but not the software (mentality).”

What’s your opinion about government efforts like the plastic bag ban in Penang? Do these help?

Definitely. Shops and supermarkets are one of the biggest “waste” producers, when it comes to plastic bags. In bakeries, for example: if you buy, say, five curry puffs — they will put each one in one bag, and then put them all into another bag!

Will recycling save us?

Unless you think 2012 is the end of the world. I think it will make a difference.

Wonderland is currently only for circulation within the waste management industry and the government, which is a shame! Are any public exhibitions of the photos planned?

We’re still working on it. I’ll be presenting the Ministry with my proposal to do a nationwide awareness exhibition using my pictures pretty soon!

All photos courtesy of Suchen SK. To find out more about Suchen’s work, visit his website.