‘Polystyrene not the real culprit’

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  • Monday, 11 Jul 2016

Photos of huge piles of polystyrene food containers strewn around are common but environmental experts say this is hardly the case at landfills. — filepic

KUALA Lumpur folk have six months to say goodbye to their tapau (takeaway) boxes. The ubiquitous clam shell containers made from polystyrene will be banned in the Federal Territories with effect from Jan 1, 2017.

Federal Territories Minister Datuk Seri Tengku Adnan Tengku Mansor made the announcement recently saying that only biodegradable products can be used in Kuala Lumpur, Putrajaya and Labuan next year.

The ruling was introduced in Pasar Raja Bot in Chow Kit last month, and will be extended to include night markets, restaurants, food trucks, shopping malls, hypermarkets and hawker centres in the next few months. (see graph).

The exercise will be carried out in four phases to encourage residents and traders to wean themselves off plastic foam products until the Federal Territories Biodegradable Product Usage By-Law is enacted.

Tengku Adnan’s reasoning is that plastic is harmful to the environment as it would take 100 to 500 years to degrade.

So restaurant owners, petty traders, roadside stalls and even manufactures of plastic foam will no longer be allowed to use and make these products any longer.

Did KL jump the gun?

In a nutshell, Kuala Lumpur has joined other states namely Selangor, Penang, Perak, Johor and Malacca, which are also starting to encourage the usage of biodegradable containers.

The move, however, has not gone down well with plastic manufacturers.

“People need to get the facts right,’’ said the Malaysian Plastic Manufac-turers Association president Datuk Lim Kok Boon.

“Consumers are easily influenced by things they see and read from the Internet and have this knee-jerk reaction to things they do not understand,’’ said Lim.

Lim explained that many developing cities in China and even the US had similarly jumped on the bandwagon to ban polystyrene in the name of environmental protection and public health, but decided to revert when they understood the topic better.

“China decided to revert to allow polystyrene after banning polystyrene for 14 years.

“So did New York. And sadly this is perpetuated by the media,’’ he added.

Green Concept Technology Sdn Bhd, Director (Business Development) Sri Umeswaran Shekar also pointed out the misconception of polystyrene being unsafe.

“Worldwide authorities such as the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) have determined that polystyrene is safe for use in contact with food,’’ said Umeswaran.

He said the usual reasons given to ban polystyrene products were overly simplistic and did not touch the root of the problem.

“They ban and think they are doing the right thing, but a lot of wrong information is attached to the reasons for doing so,’’ he said.

“Part of the myth is that polystyrene cannot be recycled.

“Now that is wrong since we are in the business of doing just that,’’ Umeswaran added.

Are the alternatives better?

So we know the Government is committed in eradicating the use of polystyrene and is currently working with several companies to offer cheaper alternatives.

However, the question that needs to be asked is whether banning one type of product and replacing it with another is the solution to the problem?

“When you ban something, there must be a reason for it. You have to ask yourself the rationale behind the ban,’’ said environment and waste management specialist Dr Theng Lee Chong.

Theng, who holds a PhD in Waste Management from Fukuoka University, Japan, invites people to look at polystyrene from a waste management perspective.

He said many manufacturers of biodegradable products like to think they are eco-friendly.

“We have heard of many big brands who have attempted to “greenwash” themselves by offering alternatives to polystyrene.

“There is not a single product that is able to replace polystyrene and be environment-friendly too,’’ said Theng.

He said paper boxes (biodegradable) could be five to six times heavier and therefore the waste stream could increase from 300,000 tonnes per year to 1.5 to 1.8 million tonnes per year.

“Multiple researches have shown that environmental impacts from paper is actually higher based on LCA (life cycle assessment) approach. And most paper boxes, when contaminated, is still not fully degradable,’’ he said.

What is degradable?

Theng also draws attention to the lack of specification or standards to define what is “degradable” in Malaysia.

“Products are termed degradable, but how many percent really is degradable is a question; because in many cases, in order to bring down the costing, the products dependability is put lower to suit the market demand.

“Manufacturers are known to use the word “degradable” on their products for marketing purpose, but often, their claims of recyclability and degradability are deceptive and misleading to the consumers,’’ Dr Theng said.

The Waste Management Association of Malaysia’s (WMAM) Communications and Marketing chairman Mohd Radhi Cheah concurs with Theng.

“Although the Government feels they are championing a good cause by banning polystyrene, many fail to see that the alternatives are no better to the environment.

“Some have encouraged the use of paper since it decomposes in a matter of weeks, but the environmental impact paper has on nature is more detrimental than plastic,’’ he said, adding that plastic, which is a by-product of petroleum, is more prevalent in our lives than we think.

Hence, he said, a complete ban was not advisable and a better management of the substance to preserve the environment is needed.

Theng, however, feels that rather than replacing polystyrene with something else, consumers should be reducing their dependence on it.

“Reduction is always good and is the first priority of 3R (reduce, reuse and recycle). But I am against the replacement of one material with another,’’ Theng said.

Both Theng and Mohd Radhi agree that there must be proper planning by the Government before they enforce any policy, as in many cases the decisions are always business driven and is beyond scientific support.

Dispelling the myth on polystyrene

As a man of science, Theng also wants to clear the air over the misleading information on polystyrene.

“Let’s look at the numbers first.

“I have been to over 50 different landfills in Malaysia and to be honest, I did not see polystyrene containers lying around like the way it has been pictured in the media.

“It is misleading when people say there are mountains of polystyrene rotting in the landfills. That is simply not true.

“When you look at the percentage of composition of organic and recyclable waste, organic waste is highest at 44.5%.

Plastic is at 13.2%, but if you break it down further, polystyrene is only 1% to 2% of the total.”

“In terms of weight, it is less than 300,000 tonnes per day; which is small compared to other categories,’’ he said.

Theng said diapers are 10 times more toxic to the environment – 12% more than polystyrene.

So why put the blame solely on polystyrene?

Environmentalists’ thoughts

“It is a nuisance to the environment. No question about that,’’ said Matthias Gelber, referring to the white foam plastic.

Gelber, who is often referred to as the Green Man, is a popular green activist who advocates sustainable ways of living in Malaysia.

“Society and industries need to shift away to more sustainable materials; it is the way of the future,’’ he stressed.

Environmental Protection Society Malaysia vice-president Randolph Geremiah also believes that Kuala Lumpur would fare better without the white foams and he was not in favour of recycling polystyrene either.

“It is going to be difficult (to recycle polystyrene). Even if manufacturers have the facilities and technology to do it, you still need someone to collect them (used polystyrene).

“Unlike steel or paper, there is very little value on these foam packs,’’ added Geremiah.

“Banning polystyrene may reduce it, but replacing it with paper boxes will still contribute to carbon emissions, energy being used to produce and transport it,’’ said Theng.

He also predicts that once the ban takes effect, instead of polystyrene, people are just going to throw more paper boxes instead.

“They are just transferring one problem to another,’’ he said, adding that Malaysians need to upgrade the level of their mindset to be more civic conscious.

Lim concurred, saying: “People need to start recycling, separating their waste at source, managing their rubbish better and simply stop littering.’’

And ironically, it is not like there is no awareness.

“According to studies carried out by Solid Waste and Public Cleansing Management Corporation (SWCorp), 70% of people know that recycling is good, but they simply don’t practise it,’’ said SWCorp Federal Territory director Hazilah Gumri.

“It is really an attitude problem.’’

On the polystyrene ban, this quote from Nobel Laureate in Chemistry, Ada E. Yonath who visited Malaysia for a talk on waste management several years ago sums it up perfectly: “Politicians are very far from science.’’

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