Plas­tic, pa­per or bust?

Hast the 'No free plas­tic bags' rul­ing in Se­lan­gor and Kuala Lumpur helped the en­vi­ron­ment?

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - Front Page - By WONG LI ZA star2­green@thes­tar.com.my

MY car boot is half oc­cu­pied with at least three re­us­able bags, two sets of tif­fin car­ri­ers and an empty box.

The re­us­able bags are for week­end gro­cery shop­ping, the tif­fin car­ri­ers for when I pack hot foods, while the box is for, well, “just in case”.

It has been over five months since (free) plas­tic bags and poly­styrene food con­tain­ers have been banned in Se­lan­gor and the Fed­eral Ter­ri­to­ries.

Un­der the rul­ing (first im­ple­mented in Jan­uary), plas­tic bags can only be dis­pensed for things like raw meat, plants (or roots cov­ered in sand or soil like pota­toes and gin­ger), and prod­ucts like seafood. Oth­er­wise, con­sumers are sup­posed to pay 20 sen for each plas­tic bag they re­quire from stores.

The rea­son for the rul­ing was to re­duce “ev­er­last­ing trash” – plas­tic bags take 20 to 1,000 years to de­com­pose in the en­vi­ron­ment, while poly­styrene does not biode­grade un­der nat­u­ral cir­cum­stances.

Cou­pled with the Malaysian habit of throw­ing rub­bish ev­ery­where, such bags and food con­tain­ers have plagued our landscape and clogged our wa­ter­ways, re­quir­ing much cost and man­power for clean ups. When they reach the sea, they break down into mi­croplas­tic par­ti­cles, which are then eaten by marine life – which we then eat!

The Malaysian Plas­tics Man­u­fac­tur­ers As­so­ci­a­tion es­ti­mates that the av­er­age Malaysian uses 300 plas­tic bags a year (al­most one ev­ery day), bring­ing the to­tal to nine bil­lion bags (based on a pop­u­la­tion of 30 mil­lion).

Fes­tive shop­ping

How­ever, what im­pact has this rul­ing had on the en­vi­ron­ment? This is es­pe­cially rel­e­vant with the up­com­ing Raya fes­tiv­i­ties, where there will be much more shop­ping in­volved.

En­vi­ron­ment and Solid Waste Man­age­ment spe­cial­ist Dr Theng Lee Chong said that the im­pact has been rather min­i­mal so far.

“Per­son­ally, I feel the im­pact on the en­vi­ron­ment is not very sig­nif­i­cant as a whole. Peo­ple still rely on plas­tic bags, at least for trash, so that means they may have to buy rub­bish bags which are larger and heav­ier,” ex­plained Theng, who is also deputy chair­man of the As­so­ci­a­tion of En­vi­ron­men­tal Con­sul­tants and Com­pa­nies of Malaysia.

“Nev­er­the­less, from my ob­ser­va­tion, more peo­ple are bring­ing their own shop­ping bags nowa­days com­pared to be­fore. They are (sort of ) forced to do it and also, it has be­come a habit,” he said.

“How­ever, should we raise aware­ness by ed­u­ca­tion or by force? Peo­ple who bring shop­ping bags may still lit­ter and use plas­tic bags when­ever they are avail­able for free,” added Theng.

An­thony Tan, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor for the Cen­tre for En­vi­ron­ment, Tech­nol­ogy and Devel­op­ment Malaysia (Cet­dem), ob­served more shoppers bring­ing and us­ing re­us­able shop­ping bags at su­per­mar­kets.

“I think peo­ple have grown to see the mon­e­tary ben­e­fit of car­ry­ing their own re­us­able bags or car­ri­ers. But un­for­tu­nately, I have also seen shoppers pull off 10 to 20 clear (free) plas­tic bags at the gro­cery sec­tions (of su­per­mar­kets)!” said Tan.

Are pa­per bags a good al­ter­na­tive to plas­tic bags?

Theng noted that not all types of pa­per can be re­cy­cled.

“If peo­ple get it for free, they take it for granted and a waste­ful at­ti­tude will con­trib­ute to more pa­per waste. Al­ways bear in mind that pa­per is made from trees. And how many pa­per pro­duc­tion (com­pa­nies) have so called ‘re­for­esta­tion’ poli­cies?” said Theng.

Re­think­ing bags

Tan felt that there is a need to re-think the ba­sic pur­pose of bags.

“Is it for sin­gle use, for dry goods or for wet pro­duce? Is it to trans­port goods from pay­ment counter to ve­hi­cle?” he asked.

“Maybe shoppers can adapt to us­ing boxes in their ve­hi­cles to store the items un­til they get home.”

What then is a more ef­fec­tive way to re­duce the use of non-degrad­able plas­tic bags and re­duce its im­pact on the en­vi­ron­ment?

“In­stead of re­duc­ing the use, I would rather fo­cus on dis­posal. Only if plas­tic bag prices are high will peo­ple use it more wisely and seg­re­gate it for re­cy­cling. Al­most all plas­tic bags can be re­cy­cled, just like your news­pa­per or alu­minium cans (which have a ring­git value for re­cy­cling),” said Theng.

“Is ban­ning plas­tic bags or poly­styrene mak­ing Malaysia cleaner as a whole? From the waste man­age­ment point of view, it is sim­ply a tiny (part) of a (big­ger) is­sue.

“We have over 160 land­fills in the coun­try. More than 90% of those are still open dumps with se­ri­ous pol­lu­tion is­sues. We still have so many un­solved prob­lems in waste man­age­ment,” said Theng.

Tan said that man­u­fac­tur­ers have to in­no­vate and find new eco-friendly al­ter­na­tives for plas­tic bags.

Share ideas on the en­vi­ron­ment with us at star2­green@thes­tar.com.my. Sam­ple top­ics in­clude: con­serv­ing wildlife/forests, sav­ing en­ergy, eco-friendly habits and em­pow­er­ing com­mu­ni­ties to care for na­ture.

- AZ­MAN GHANI

Pa­per bags may not re­ally be a more eco-friendly al­ter­na­tive to plas­tic bags.

Plas­tic bags have been a pol­lu­tion me­nace in Se­lan­gor, as seen in this file photo of the seafront at Sek­in­chan.

— AZ­MAN GHANI

Re­us­able bags like this chiller bag are handy for gro­cery shop­ping.

— AZ­MAN GHANI

With the up­com­ing Raya fes­ti­val, some re­tail­ers are of­fer­ing spe­cial fes­tive re­us­able shop­ping bags.

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