Worrying rise in use of plastics

Some restaurants still use plastic bags for food in tiffin carriers, defeating the purpose of customers bringing their own containers.

EACH time Jess Tan heads to the supermarket for her weekly shopping, she brings along plenty of reusable grocery bags to avoid using the store’s plastic ones.

But the sight of products in plastic packaging lining the shelves is making her question the impact she has in helping to reduce plastic waste.

The 55-year-old said the situation had worsened since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic last year.

“I was shocked to see almost every single fresh food item pre-packaged individually.

“I realise that this is due to hygiene and safety aspects but it is disheartening to see so much plastic being used, which will eventually be discarded,” she said.

Tan said that previously she shopped only at the wet market where most products were sold loose and overall usage of plastic bag was less.

“Since the lockdowns started, most markets have been closed and it feels safer to shop at supermarkets,” she added.

Chong Wei Yin, 60, said she noticed a similar trend in food packaging for takeaway.

Since the ban on dining-in and the pivot to ordering online, plastic food containers have become ubiquitous.

“I try to bring my own containers when I tapau (takeaway order), but sometimes I end up with food packed in plastic anyway as the restaurant staff find it easier to do that,” said Chong.

“Many customers still don’t bring their own bags and do not seem to mind paying extra for the bags.”

Both Tan and Chong said they had seen little emphasis by the authorities in enforcing the ban on single-use plastic bags and straws in Selangor.

Many restaurants and coffeshops were still providing plastic straws despite the ban in 2019, they said.

An Ampang restaurant owner, who wanted to be known only as Ahmad, said he switched from paper packaging to plastic in May last year as the latter was cheaper.

“Paper packaging is not suitable for delivery.

“With no dining in and fewer customers, I have to cut down costs and maximise profits,” he said.

Shifting the burden

Greenpeace Malaysia public engagement campaigner Hema S. Mahadevan said Selangor government’s plastic ban programme — which focused on reducing the use of plastic bags and straws — was good but there was low compliance due to lack of enforcement.

While awareness of plastic waste — especially imported plastic — has increased, this has not necessarily impacted personal habits, she said.

For large-scale change to happen, it has to go beyond individual consumers.

“We need to look at the bigger picture.

“The onus is not only on individuals but also corporations that continue to use single-use plastic packaging.

“Despite the many campaigns, there are no concrete initiatives on reduction by companies that are producing or packaging their products with plastic,” added Hema.

On Oct 10, 2018, the Energy, Science, Technology, Environment and Climate Change Ministry approved Malaysia’s Roadmap Towards Zero Single Use Plastics 2018-2030.

The roadmap necessitated a structured and coordinated effort from all stakeholders in the plastic supply chain to resolve various pollution issues.

It also called for the adoption of bio bags nationwide to replace plastic bags by 2022.

Hema said the roadmap was a positive start to reduce single-use plastics and plastic waste pollution.

However, she said the government should also regulate all producers, service providers, buyers and retailers of fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) through extended producer responsibility (EPR) where they commit to plastic reduction and invest in reuse, refill and alternative delivery systems.

“Plastic bags and straws are only a small part of the problem,” she said, pointing out that the main issue was large quantities of goods that were pre-packaged and sold.

“It is pointless to use a reusable bag while leaving the grocery store filled with food wrapped in plastic,” she added.

Hema said policies should focus on shifting the burden of responsibility to producers and corporations to reduce the usage of non-essential single-use plastic.

Cognisant of the rising environmental impact from consumer packaging waste, industry leaders in FMCG recently formed the Malaysian Recycling Alliance (Marea).

It is a voluntary industry-led EPR group of like-minded companies that focus on significantly improving collection and recycling of post-consumer packaging.

Marea comprises 10 initial members — Coca-Cola Malaysia, Colgate-Palmolive Malaysia, Dutch Lady Milk Industries, Etika Group of Companies, Fraser & Neave Holdings Bhd, Mondelez International, Nestle Malaysia, Spritzer, Tetra Pak Malaysia and Unilever Malaysia.

It aims to enhance collection, promote the use of recycled and renewable materials as well as minimise post-consumer packaging leakage into the environment.

Shopping online

Our mounting waste problem has been exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic, including the compulsory use of face masks.

“It is estimated that Malaysians used 7.04 million face masks daily during the pandemic last year,” said Hema.

“Most disposable face masks contain plastic and its widespread use has increased plastic waste,” she said.

The popularity of online platforms for food and retail has also led to an increase in the usage of plastics.

Food delivery and online shopping use a lot of plastic packaging in the delivery process, including plastic containers and plastic such as bubble wrap for packaging, shipping and packing.

Malaysia is leading the pack, with a study showing that we have the highest percentage of digital consumers in South-East Asia.

A total of 83% of our population (aged 15 and above) counted as digital consumers in 2020, according to a joint study by Bain & Company and Facebook, said Hema.

“The study also noted that Malaysians are not just spending more money through online shopping compared to 2019, they are also spending more in different categories — from essentials to retail therapy — due to the movement restrictions and closure of physical stores.”

On changing behaviour, Hema said segregating waste was an important part of the process.

“None of us are perfect. It is quite difficult to avoid plastic at times, which is where waste segregation comes in.

“This is especially true when it comes to recyclable items.

“Keep a separate waste bin specifically for recyclable items,” she said.

However, recycling should always be the last option as contaminated single-use plastic products cannot be recycled.

“Instead, we should first exhaust all efforts in reducing our use of plastic altogether,” Hema concluded.

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