PLASTIC bags have been getting a bad reputation lately.
Last year, four states in Malaysia – Selangor, Kuala Lumpur, Johor and Melaka – came up with a ruling to replace petroleum-based plastic bags with biodegradable alternatives.
Despite many hiccups in the implementation of the new ruling both for residential and commercial areas, the authorities are bent on making the change.
However, plastic and some environmental experts believe that plastic bags are still the right choice for the environment, economy and community if used wisely.
Malaysian Plastics Manufacturers Association (MPMA) president Datuk Lim Kok Boon said there were many misconceptions about plastic and its negative effects on the environment and health.
“There is so much information on the Internet but not all are true. Some authorities are also giving inaccurate statements and misleading the public into believing negative stuff about using plastic.
“For example, the scare about reusing plastic bottles is exaggerated. There is a certain amount of leaching with every use but it is the same with other materials.
“The leaching from plastic bottles does not cause health problems. I have been using the same plastic bottles for over a decade because it fits my car side pockets and the bottles are always left in my car.
“The fact that there is no disclaimer on the plastic bottles used by multinational beverage companies to deny responsibility of health concerns with its continued usage speaks for itself.
“It is the same for polystyrene packages, which is widely used in serving street food in countries like South Korea and Japan, which some claim can cause cancer,” he said.
Another issue that marred the name of plastic was its effect on marine life. Lim said although littering has caused plastic to be mistaken for food by sea creatures, a mistake in a 2002 report has sparked great concern on plastic bag usage.
“A report on its website misinterpreted a 1987 Canadian study which attributed plastic debris, not plastic bags as stated, to cause the death of 100,000 marine animals annually. Plastic debris are mainly fishing equipment, among others.
“The error was corrected in 2006 but the 100,000 figure continues to be quoted.
“I hope people will not easily believe everything they read on the Internet but do their own research as well,” he said.
Lim said much of the fuss about plastic was due to the fact that it was not degradable.
“Do biodegradable products actually degrade in the landfill?
“Degradation occurs when there is moisture and heat. Landfills today are engineered to eliminate moisture and retard biodegradation. Due to the lack of oxygen, most of the waste go through anaerobic (without oxygen) degradation and release methane gas (CH4) instead of carbon dioxide (CO2). Both are greenhouse gases that cause global warming, and methane is 22 times more harmful than carbon dioxide.
“So, why are we promoting biodegradation when our aim is to protect the environment?
“On the other hand, plastic bags are inert and can be recycled many times,” he said.
“Plastic bags are made out of polyethylene and are easily recycled. One tonne of plastic bags save 11 barrels of oil if recycled, and it takes 91% less energy to recycle plastic compared to paper.
Lim said it was not practical to completely eliminate plastic bags.
“If a plastic bag was given during the purchase and reused at disposal stage, it is reusing.
“We need to educate people on using plastic bags wisely. Take only what is needed, reuse and recycle the excess, which will leave very little carbon footprint.
“Other alternative bags made of paper, low-density polyethylene, polypropylene and jute, will need to be reused between four and 173 times to match the plastic bags’ carbon footprint.
“Logically, environmentally friendly approach will be to focus on the 3Rs – reduce, reuse and recycle. We need to give it a chance to work,” he said.
Environment activist S. Sri Umeswaran, who has worked on many activities related to sustainable development and waste management said he determined eco-friendly products from the amount of carbon emission emitted throughout the process of producing the product and not just by judging it at the disposal stage.
“In Malaysia, eco-friendly products or plastics are viewed from the point of biodegradability and source of the raw material. Most of the time the producers do ‘green washing’ as we are still new to the matter.
“Recycling is one of the most important actions currently available to waste accumulation and represents one of the most dynamic areas in the plastics industry today.
“Recycling provides the opportunity to reduce oil usage, carbon dioxide emissions and the quantities of waste requiring disposal. But in Malaysia, we set recycling into context against other waste-reduction strategies.
“Advances in technologies and systems for the collection, sorting and reprocessing of recyclable plastics are creating new opportunities for recycling.
“With the combined actions of the public, industry and governments, it may be possible to divert the majority of plastic waste from landfills to recycling over the next decades.
“In Malaysia, the plastic recycling industry has high potential in terms of economic strength. Unfortunately, not much recognition is given to this industry as most people think they are polluters, which is actually not the case.
“The plastic recycling industry in Malaysia is often misunderstood as most of them do downgrade recycling by processing contaminated post-consumer waste (waste not separated at source).
“This is because consumers rarely practise segregation at source. Therefore, some plastic recyclers import clean segregated plastic waste from Europe and US into the country via approved permit. Clean plastic waste is needed to meet higher market demand as it gives higher strength, quality and higher value.
“In countries such as Germany and Japan, the plastic recycling system works smoothly without any ban imposed on any kind of plastics. They have similar legislation like us including a take-back system (where product manufacturers are responsible to take back the products for recycling) in place as consumer incentives.
“The government agencies in these countries view waste as resources and make full use of it. They take a holistic view through life-cycle assessment (LCA).
“Our authorities should conduct LCA to check on carbon emission."
Sri said biodegradable products were a short-term solution as there were no scientifically proven studies to show degradation at our landfill or dump sites.
“Society has a littering problem. It may encourage the public to dispose more or litter indiscriminately.
“Each type of plastic has been developed for specific applications and primarily made for its strength, toughness and long-lasting durability. For that reason, biodegradability is not the answer.
“I urge waste management systems to use technology to sort and recycle all kind of plastic.
“The Malaysian plastics industry should also look into the possibility of creating more recyclable plastic designs to support the circular economy,” he added.