Billions of plastic bags still being used

Experts say only 5 of people are using green bags on Saturdays.

THE carcass of a dolphin was found washed up on the beach of Pulau Jerejak in Penang recently. It is believed that the dolphin may have choked on plastic.

Images of dead whales, turtles, dolphins, sharks, seagulls and all sorts of birds washing onto beaches all over the world with their gut choked with plastic rubbish is something we are all equally responsible for.

On the local front, more cases of dead marine life are emerging in different parts of the country which are directly and indirectly a result of plastic waste and other forms of contaminants.

According to the Malaysian Plastics Manufacturers Association (MPMA), the average Malaysian uses 300 plastic bags per year.

Thus with a population of 30 million, multiply that with 300, and the result is a whopping nine billion plastic bags Malaysians are using each year.

However, several green activists said the numbers provided by MPMA is not logical as it means that the average person uses fewer than one plastic bag per day.

More bags the better

The MPMA’s figure is solely based on plastic bags you take away from hypermarkets and supermarkets.

It does not include the plastic bags from department stores, night markets, wet markets or even from the mamak stalls when you pack your teh tarik or goreng pisang to go.

“If you look at the lifestyle today, the estimation would be two plastic bags per person per day,’’ said Green Concept Technology Sdn Bhd, Director (Business Development) Sri Umeswaran Shekar.

Environment and waste management specialist Dr Theng Lee Chong concurs, saying that the average Malaysian easily takes away between three and five plastic bags per day.

Shoppers are still using plastic bags despite the ‘no plastic bags on Saturday’ campaign.
Shoppers are still using plastic bags despite the ‘no plastic bags on Saturday’ campaign.

He said Malaysian shoppers have the tendency to take home more bags than they need; the more the better.

This makes us wonder about the Government’s nationwide policy against plastic bags on Saturdays.

The “No plastic bags on Saturday” campaign, which started in 2011 nationwide, forced shoppers to pay 20sen for each plastic bag they needed for their groceries.

The Domestic Trade, Cooperatives and Consumerism Ministry launched a campaign to encourage outlets to take part in the effort to reduce the usage of plastic bags.

Almost a decade after the campaign was launched; one wonders if there has been a lifestyle change amongst Malaysians.

Encouraging but no stats

We approached Mydin, Aeon, Guardian and Tesco for data as well feedback on the success rate of the “No plastic bags on Saturday” campaign in their outlets.

Most of the outlets said that although there was awareness among shoppers about the campaign, not many shoppers brought their own bags.

“For instance, shoppers who shop without intention may not necessarily have a reusable bag ready on hand,’’ said a Guardian spokesman.

Aeon said the campaign was successful and that the number of customers not using plastic bags had increased over the years.

A Mydin spokesperson said at the initial stages of the campaign, the response from customers and shoppers were not good.

“But now, it is getting better and they just have to get used to it.

“We notice shoppers are starting to bring their own recycled bags or green bags while shopping at Mydin,’’ said the spokesman.

“Our evaluation was done based on empirical study which is through the response of customers and shoppers,’’ he said.

“We also communicate with our cashiers and customer service staff to know how shoppers were responding to the campaign,” the spokesperson said.

Meanwhile, Tesco Malaysia corporate services director Azliza Baizura Azmel said over time, customers were responding well because the volume of plastic bags used on Saturdays had reduced significantly.

“More customers are coming to our stores with their own reusable bags not only on Saturdays but also other days,” she said.

Azliza said there were no specific studies done but they could see a reduction on the usage of plastic bags by shoppers on Saturdays.

While all the stores said there were improvements, they, however declined to share the numbers on the usage of plastic bags on Saturdays.

Not successful

A study done by a Monash University Malaysia research team, has concluded that plastic bag bans and taxes do not reduce the impact of plastic on the biosphere.

“While the ‘No plastic bags on Saturday’ policy has raised awareness, it has had negligible effect on reducing plastic bag use,” said Dr Victoria Little, who did the research with Dr Sumesh Nair and Prof Christina Lee.

All of them have moved on from Monash except Prof Lee.

The study, which is titled “Pro-environmental policy and the market: A multi-level analysis of a plastic bag tax”, started in 2011 and is ongoing.

She said it was an ethnographic study, which is where one goes and lives among the people, and observes first hand what is going on from an insider’s perspective.

She said they identified key informants such as those directly involved in production, distribution, consumption and disposal of plastic bags, and system influencers (government and environmental groups).

“As plastics manufacturers are a diverse group ranging from large multinational businesses to ‘backyard’ producers, we considered their interests were best represented by the MPMA, who were kind enough to share their considerable expertise with us,” she said.

She also said they interviewed senior managers in three major grocery retail chains, two major NGOs and senior government officials responsible for waste management.

“We spent many hours observing shoppers’ behaviour in malls, supermarkets and night markets.

“We also conducted a survey of nearly 200 consumers.

“Our database includes around 1,000 pages of transcripts, media data, field notes and more than 200 photographs,” she said.

On the feedback from local shoppers, she said it was hard to characterise or generalise.

“Overall, it was a complex picture, impossible to generalise.

“Some locals tried to lay their hands on as many bags as possible, however others were strongly supportive of the tax and wanted a complete ban.

“The reusable bag users tended more to be Western expatriates, who are a non-representative subset of the populations of their home countries,” she said.

She also said overall, the study found that the policy’s objectives of reducing waste to landfill and reducing pollution were not achieved.

“We are revising the paper for publication, and we are also thinking about continuing the study here in New Zealand,” she said.

Ban the bag

Environmentalist Matthias Gelber said there was no change at all in the behaviour of Malaysians on the usage of plastic bags.

“I don’t have any statistics or numbers to back this, but I have been observing people in supermarkets and cashiers at the counters, with very few exceptions; there is no change in consumers behaviour when it came to ditching plastic bags,’’ he said.

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

He stressed that the only way to make a difference is to educate people, especially the younger generation, on the negatives of plastic and the harm it causes the environment.

Gelber said the other alternative is to make plastic bags very expensive like what is done in Germany.

“In Germany, you can still have it, but it costs a lot. This, in my opinion, is the best mechanism,’’ he said.

“We don’t need anymore awareness campaigns, we need an action campaign. Perhaps it is a good idea to ban plastic bags or make it very expensive; and use the money for conservation or better waste management.

“Malaysians do not see the negative impact of what they are doing.

“The mindset of ‘tidak apa’ (indifference) and ‘hangat-hangat tahi ayam’ (shortlived enthusiasm) must be stopped,” Gelber said.

Perhaps Gelber is right. Maybe it is time to ban the plastic or make it very expensive to the consumers.

And if that does not move you, perhaps the sight of a dead dolphin with its gut filled with plastic rubbish may bring a change in lifestyle.

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