Doing away with single-use plastics

Food court operators supporting the idea to stop the use of plastic straws call for better replacements that are equally cost effective for businesses. — Photos: RONNIE CHIN/The Star

WE HARDLY think about it, but the plastic straws we use daily have been the talk of town lately, with the focus falling squarely on doing away with it all together.

Hashtags such as #StopSucking, #strawlessocean and #refusethestraw are gaining traction on social media globally, with several well-known brands announcing their commitment to getting rid of single-use plastic straws completely in their operations.

In Malaysia, the Penang government announced last month it was looking into banning plastic straws and single-use plastics, such as plastic lids and cups.

Banning the non-biodegradable straws alone might not save the environment immediately, but it certainly is a good start towards encouraging much-needed larger behaviour changes.

“It can work if there is a better and more environmental friendly alternative for food and beverage operators to replace plastic straws,” said Plan B cafe supervisor Hafiz M in Ipoh Old Town.

“Such an initiative is going to do the environment good if we keep using less single-use plastics,” he said.

“At least, we know we are creating less rubbish.”

Since the eatery opens daily, Hafiz said it uses about 2,500 plastic straws on average a week, with a spike in number during weekends and long holidays.

“We use straws while serving all kinds of cold drinks, except for beer and wines.

“It is not an expensive item and customers usually want to use it to enjoy certain drinks, especially customised or fusion drinks.

“But doing away with it is possible.

“I learned that some food and beverage eateries in the Klang Valley have already started the ‘no straw’ practice, where they only give out straws upon request.

“Some have even replaced it with stainless steel straws,” he said.

However, Hafiz feels restaurant operators should be given sufficient time to phase out plastic straws as it was typically purchased in bulk.

“We all know that single-use plastic products are not good for the environment at all.

“We should stop using them and I hope more cafes and restaurants will follow suit,” he added.

A global trend

In the last few months, banning plastic straws became a trend for big companies internationally.

Starbucks made headlines in early July when it announced that it would forgo plastic straws entirely by 2020 and since then, other well-known companies such as Walt Disney Company, American Airlines and Ikea also announced similar measures.

Back home, Malaysian singer-songwriter Yuna pledged to stop using straws in August last year and weighed in on the issue with several other celebrities to highlight the impact of single-use plastic straws on the environment.

She said most plastic straws ended up in oceans, polluting the water and harming sea life.

“If we do not act now, by 2050, plastics in the ocean will outweigh the fish,” said Yuna.

The Perak government has expressed the need for more time to implement the banning of plastic bags and polystyrene containers in the state, despite calls from several environmental groups to revive a proposed ban.

In 2016, the previous state government announced the first phase of a state-wide ban on plastic bags and polystyrene containers, but it failed to take off.

Restaurateur Tang Zhao Ming, 25, who operates the Kin Fatt food court in Jalan Sultan, Pasir Pinji in Ipoh, supports the idea of doing away with plastic straws and calls for better replacements that were equally cost effective for businesses.

“The straw has been so cheap and yet essential in making our drink consumption easier for a long time.

“I saw a video online where a sea turtle was crying and bleeding while a marine rescuer tried to pull out a plastic straw that was stuck in its nose.

“This is definitely not good in the long run. We need straws that can break down and be recycled,” he said, adding that he was mulling to stop using polystyrene containers for take-out at his food court.

Tang noted that a higher cost would be incurred if food and beverage operators offered more environmental-friendly options, as recyclable products such as paper straws, cups, boxes, biodegradable containers or stainless steel straws were more expensive.

“Businesses will usually pass on the cost to consumers.

“Maybe I will add 20sen to the bill for a take-out in a paper or biodegradable container. But not all customers will want to pay this extra cost.

“Perhaps the government can offer some kind of incentive for businesses that make the effort to go green,” he said.

However, for Lau Koi Chew, 46, who has been operating the drinks counter at Tang’s food court for many years, it remains a question whether consumers in general were ready to forgo single-use plastics.

“Society is used to the convenience of plastic straws and polystyrene containers.

“The recycling habit is still low amongst people here too.

“I think it will take a lot of time, effort and education for the people to change their mindset,” he said.

If a ban is implemented, Lau said due consideration should be given to those with disability or medical condition and require a straw to drink with.

Impact on businesses and environment

Another food operator also expressed scepticism, saying that it would not be easy to ban single-use plastics.

“If the cost to operate a business increases because of the ban, then it will not be viable for small businesses like mine,” said Choong Jee Joo, 60, who is running the 80-year-old Yew Ming Restaurant in Ipoh Old Town, selling Chinese dishes and rice.

“Unless there is a better option that will not affect us so much financially, a ban without proper planning is going to hurt many small business operators,” he added.

Choong also questioned how much would change by banning plastic straws alone, as most plastic rubbish still ended up in a landfill or ocean instead of being recycled.

“If a change is really needed to save the environment, then ban all single-use plastic products altogether,” he said, adding that such implementation needed advanced planning by all stakeholders.

In August 2017, The Star reported that it is estimated that one straw is used per person each day in Malaysia. This means about 31 million plastic straws are used on a daily basis nationwide.

Plastic straws are not biodegradable. A single plastic straw takes hundreds of years to break down into small pieces, known as microplastics.

Plastics and microplastics are accumulating in the ocean, affecting the food chain and overall ecosystem.

According to a report in February 2015, eight million tonnes of plastic end up in our oceans each year, and the amount is only expected to grow.

Perak’s Malaysian Nature Society chairman Ooi Beng Yean said businesses and the public should practise stricter control to bring down plastic consumption in the first place.

“Food industry players and the public should stop using plastic straws and replace them with straws made of eco-friendly alternative materials.

“The awareness among Malaysians on the harmful effects of plastics on the environment is still very poor. Many do not care at all.

“The public needs to be educated and punished for throwing rubbish everywhere.

“The good habit to dispose waste properly should start at home and in schools,” he said, adding that the local authorities should provide adequate and convenient recycle bins and centres for recyclable wastes.

Ooi said the federal and state governments should frequently remind the public about the negative effects of single-use plastics.

“Plastics are not biodegradable. So getting rid of plastic straws makes sense because they can be replaced by non-plastic options.

“There are many examples of how customers are given incentives if they return their recyclable wastes to supermarkets nearest to them, such as empty plastic bottles, tin cans and others.

“Japan, for example is known for such a practice. Maybe we could have it here too,” he added.

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