Our plastic predicament

Think twice: With Malaysia having the highest annual per capita plastic use in South-East Asia, we need to think hard before using single-use plastic containers and water bottles. — Filepic/The Star

YES, Covid-19 has left behind tonnes of clinical waste in its wake but we need to pay attention to the pile of plastic waste we produce too.

Environmental groups believe that more plastic waste is being produced due to the pandemic, be it used masks or food packaging from taking away and delivery.

It’s a concern that Malaysia has the highest annual per capita plastic use in South-East Asia, at 16.78kg per person, based on a 2019 study by the WWF (World Wide Fund for Nature). Thailand’s usage was 15.52kg, Vietnam 12.93kg, Indonesia 12.5kg and the Philippines 12.4kg.

However, Malaysia’s Housing and Local Government Ministry assures us that recycling efforts are still ongoing, achieving a rate of 30.67% last year – slightly more than the targeted 30%.

It says plastic items also took up a smaller portion of total waste disposed of in 2020, compared with before the pandemic, in 2019.

“Plastic waste made up 24.8% of total disposed waste at landfills in 2019. This percentage dropped to 22.7% last year, based on a study on solid waste composition by the Solid Waste Management and Public Cleansing Corporation,” the ministry tells Sunday Star.

But the ministry did not disclose the total amount of waste produced in both years.

The demand for plastic seems to be on the rise, given the circumstances surrounding the ongoing pandemic, say environmental groups.

“More and more people are opting for food take-outs and deliveries, purchasing groceries online and switching to disposable utensils for convenience and reassurance.

“Almost all of our food is wrapped in plastic, and this causes a huge spike in packaging waste generation, primarily consisting of plastics,” says WWF-Malaysia sustainable markets programme lead Dr Adrian Choo.

As one of the key components of medical equipment and gear, plastic has played an essential role in keeping hospitals running and protecting frontliners during the pandemic.

Although it is too early to say what the long-term impacts of the pandemic will be in terms of plastic pollution, WWF-Malaysia observes there has been increase in single-use plastic.

“Plastic polymers used in lifesaving medical equipment such as medical masks, protective suits and face shields as well as in takeout food packaging and single-use plastic water bottles have all seen a rise in demand,” Choo says.

This has led to a spike in plastic waste, with restaurants shifting to cater to more deliveries or take-aways and the rapid turnover of personal protective equipment in our healthcare system.

Given such trends, there may be more masks and other materials ending up in nature than before the crisis began.

“It is our collective responsibility to act to ensure that the materials we are using to secure our health and safety now are used, processed and disposed of in a way that doesn’t impact our long-term health and well-being and that of the planet,” Choo says.

Taking action

About 4.8 to 12.7 million tonnes of plastics find their way into oceans every year worldwide.

The WWF has projected that the volume of plastic waste will increase four-fold between 2010 and 2050, and by weight, the ocean could contain more plastic than fish.

“Plastic pollution is long-lasting, and if we do not take urgent and proper action now, it will negatively impact our health, wildlife, and the natural environment in the long term,” Choo stresses.

For decades, waste management has always been the responsibility of the public and government.

“However, this system needs further involvement and support to make it more efficient.

“A revision of the existing system is crucial to ensure greater responsibility beginning from the producers themselves,” he says.

This can be done through the Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) scheme, which holds producers accountable for end-of-life products. This means that the producers are responsible for the management of waste produced by their consumers.

“We are also pleased with the Malaysian government’s introduction of the EPR scheme and circular economy in the 12th Malaysia Plan, as it will set directions for better measures on product packaging and design for recycling or waste management.

“As individuals, we need to do our part as well,” Choo says, urging the public to start by rethinking the use of everyday plastics such water bottles, shopping bags and to-go containers.

With Malaysia allowing interstate travel now, Malaysian Nature Society president Dr Ahmad Ismail says it is likely to cause an increase in rubbish generated. He laments that Malaysians are still not fully aware of the importance of reducing waste and lack good practices when it comes to rubbish.

“Many travellers will stop at rest stops or R&R areas. We will see a lot of rubbish in these spots, either an overflow of rubbish around the bins provided or where people park their cars.

“The authorities should reschedule rubbish collection at these places during the holidays or have more bins in the area,” he suggests, adding that many stop at R&R areas specifically to use the bins.

Even though we can use fabric masks, single use or disposable masks are still in demand, especially with the practice of double-masking to guard against Covid-19.

“Nevertheless, fabric masks can help reduce plastic waste pollution, as they can be washed and reused,” he says.

“Fabric masks can be used as part of our new culture during the pandemic or endemic phase of Covid-19.

“This is as long as the fabric mask fulfils standards such as having three layers as advised by the authorities,” he says.

Ahmad calls on the public to change our lifestyles if we want to reduce plastic pollution.

“All plastic used must be separated to be reused or recycled.

“Plastic is non-biodegradable and can stay in the ocean for a long time, fragmenting and causing danger to marine life.

“Think before using single use plastic and water bottles, don’t use personal care and pharmaceutical products containing microbeads, avoid ordering food from outside and always carry reusable shopping bags,” he urges the public.

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plastic waste , pandemic , environment


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