Local councils in the Klang Valley have taken a leading role in the green initiative by discouraging the use of plastic and polystyrene food packaging.
However, plastic manufacturers have been denying claims that the materials are harmful to the health and the environment.
Do biodegradable plastic bags offer a green solution? The Malaysian Plastics Manufacturers Association (MPMA) said that while the intention is good, environment-friendly versions have their own problems.
Whatever your view, there is no doubt that plastic does contribute to our waste problem.
According to the Global Environment Centre (GEC), Malaysians produced 23,000 tonnes of waste daily in 2008.
Less than 5% of it is recycled and 19% ends up clogging drains, a leading cause of flash floods.
By 2020, it was estimated that 30,000 tonnes will be produced daily but this figure was already reached by 2013.
With such disparate schools against and for plastic, attempts have been made to change the conversation by directing the focus on changing people’s habits.
Polyseed Footprint Solutions Sdn Bhd chief executive officer Leonard Ho is advocating the use of oxo-degradable plastic bags.
The use of additives supplied by the company, degrade polymers on a molecular level through a process known as oxidative degradation.
“There are many types of polymer in plastic food packaging from polyethylene (PE) to polyvinyl chloride (PVC); these melt at different temperatures and need to be separated before recycling.
“Five years ago, I started to look for different solutions to recycling plastic by separating the chemicals and when I could not find the technology to do that, I looked at green technologies to degrade plastic,” he said.
Ho added that the green-tech bags last up to five years before they begin the degradation phase, by which time they have already landed up in the landfill.
“The oxo-degradable plastic bags have gone through toxicity tests at the level of microorganisms to study the decomposition of the plastic’s cellular structure into powder form.
“To degrade, all that is required is exposure to the sun’s UV and heat rays, breaking down to become food for microbes,”
Ho hopes to launch 600ml mineral water bottles in the coming months.
He also started the HappyEarth Campaign where businesses are given oxo-degradable plastic bags in exchange for conventional ones for one month at no additional cost. This campaign began in April around Puchong.
So far, about 265 mini-marts have participated.
“We started by getting the small kedai runcit involved.
“The usual plastic bags that are exchanged are then recycled to make more oxo-degradable bags.
“Currently we supply our additives to plastics manufacturer Euro SME Sdn Bhd.
“The green-tech plastic bags are sold at 1% more than the usual ones,” he said.
Plastic is better
Plastics are a big industry – statistics from the MPMA showed the total export of plastic bags last year increased by 8.1% from RM3.69bil to RM3.99bil while plastic films exports increased by 17.7% from RM3.89bil to RM4.58bil.
Packaging is the largest sector for plastic exports with the main market coming from Europe, United States and Japan.
“Conventional plastic can be recycled,” said Malaysian Plastics Forum education and awareness chairman Ahmad Khairuddin Sha’aban.
He contends that in its production and transportation phases, plastic packaging has a lower carbon footprint as it uses less energy in production.
“It also consumes less crude oil in transportation because it is lighter compared to alternatives such as paper and jute bags,” he pointed out.
“Plastic is inert so as long as it is recycled, it has a lower carbon footprint, and its packaging efficiency also reduces food wastage,” he said.
According to Ahmad, plastics yields RM1 per kg from recycling behind aluminium at RM4 per kg, with scrap metal trailing behind at RM0.60per kg, followed by paper at RM0.45 per kg.
He added that football jerseys are among the items made entirely out of recycled plastic packaging such as bottles.
Whereas polystyrene, which makes up less than 1% in weight and volume of landfill materials, can be recycled into green-building construction products.
Ahmad said using the wrong additives for biodegradable bags could cause further issues to arise.
“I find that as noble as their intentions are, biodegradable plastics also encourage people to litter.
“Starch-based biodegradable bags use food source such as corn, that should be prioritised as a resource instead.”
He said biodegradable types of plastic are more difficult to manage.
“They cannot be put in the recycling stream because like plastic coated paper, it is not economically viable to separate,” said Ahmad.
Ecoknights president Yasmin Rasyid’s qualms with plastic stem from it being a non-renewable source.
“For me plastics are a big no-no in whatever form whether degradable or not because it uses petroleum-based non-renewable materials.
“Paper is more renewable as trees can be planted and need only about five to six years to reach maturity.
“Although organic materials like paper emit methane as they break down, I think it’s the lesser of two evils,” she said.
Yasmin also said one of the solutions is to curb littering.
“The behaviour of consumers is killing the planet.”
Global Environment Centre water and waste management specialist Dr K. Kalithasan said we should keep the use of plastic to a minimum.
“I don’t know whether banning plastic is politically or economically possible because it is a huge industry,” he said.
He also said that education is the key and that the misuse of plastic is also reflected in the way it is disposed.
“Plastic is the most visible as it floats. When people see rivers full of rubbish, it encourages more to dump illegally.”
Kalithasan said the key message was not the different types of plastic, but how they were handled.
“We should return to traditional practices,” he said, adding that 30 to 40 years ago, people would carry their own bags and tiffin carriers.
They would also reuse items such as newspaper together with banana leaves to package food.
“We should avoid the use of plastic if possible.
“Although using reusable food packaging has other implications such as needing water to wash them, people need to think about the short and long-term impact.
“We shouldn’t have this instant- noodle mentality, but understand anything that’s fast is not good because it goes against nature,” he added.
MPMA organised a “Don’t be a Litterbug” campaign during Thaipusam earlier this year.
It was also aimed at educating people to separate plastic from other types of waste.
“We had about 300 volunteers lining the Batu Caves procession route for two to three days to educate people that plastic and polystyrene food packaging can be recycled,” said Ahmad.