Spare that straw, please

DRINK up, folks, but without the straw please.

Malaysians use up about 31 million plastic straws every day, based on conservative estimates, and these would likely end up in landfills.

Each plastic straw takes “hundreds of years” to degrade, says environment and solid waste management specialist Dr Theng Lee Chong, who estimates that one straw is used per person each day in Malaysia.

(Americans use single-use straws at an average rate of 1.6 straws per person each day. This equates to 500 million plastic straws being used every day in the United States alone.)

Last year, Malaysians produced about 38,000 tonnes of waste daily.

Solid Waste Management and Public Cleansing Corporation (SWCorp Malaysia) deputy chief executive officer (technical) Dr Mohd Pauze Mohamad Taha says that only 0.5% of the waste is incinerated. The rest is landfilled.

“Single-use plastics represent a huge threat to the environment if it not properly managed,” he says.

Dr Mohd Pauze: Only 0.5 of waste is incinerated daily.
Dr Mohd Pauze: Only 0.5 of waste is incinerated daily.  

Dr Mohd Pauze says that single-use plastics are known for their interference in ecosystems. They also contribute to floods as they clogged up pipes and drains.

“This threat is not only related to the sheer volume of them ending up in landfills, but also to the resources needed to produce, transport and (occasionally) recycle them, and the emissions resulting from these processes improperly disposed,” he said.

According to a National Solid Waste Management Department’s 2012 report, plastic makes up 13.2% of Malaysia’s total household waste.

As for plastic straws, it is almost an automatic practice to consume cold drinks out of them. They are given to diners without a second thought.

Mareena Yahya Kerschot, a co-founder of the “Tak Nak Straw” campaign, says this habit was harming the environment.

“You consume your drink in less than five minutes, then you throw the straw away,” she says.

These straws, she says, are among the plastics making its way into the ocean, getting eaten by fish and trapping sea creatures.

“That video of a turtle who had a straw stuck in its nose left a big impact on me,” said Kershot, referring to a YouTube video which showed researchers pulling out a plastic straw from the turtle’s nose.

The video has had 12 million views. And the turtle has inadvertently become the poster child for the anti-straw campaign.

Plastic straws are not biodegradable. Instead, it breaks down into small pieces called microplastics.

Dr Theng: The straw is very small ... to segregate? for recycling purposes.
Dr Theng: The straw is very small ... to segregate for recycling purposes.  

“These microplastics keep accumulating in the oceans, and it affects the food chain and overall ecosystem. And it is highly harmful to the sea animals,” Dr Theng said.

“Many so called ‘biodegradable’ or ‘degradable’ plastics in the markets are actually not fully degraded, but only visually breakdown into smaller pieces of microplastics,” he said.

The UK-based Ellen MacArthur Foundation, which works in education and training, said in a report last year that there will be more plastic waste than fish by 2050.

Most plastic straws are made from polypropylene (PP).

Even though PP plastic can be recycled, it is hardly done due to its size.

“The straw is very small and hard to pick up or segregate for recycling purposes,” said Dr Theng.

“If a recycler finds a big bundle of plastic straws, he would definitely pick it for recycling. But if he has to pick it up piece by piece from the waste stream, he would rather spend time and focus on other larger plastic products,” he says.

Should people even use straws?

“We are grown adults. Do we really need a straw? Even my kids don’t need straws,” Tak Nak Straw co-founder Claire Sancelot says.

She says that the need for hygiene should not be an excuse to use straws.

“Some people say that a straw is needed because the restaurants don’t clean the glasses well. If you’re worried about hygiene, what about the plate and the cutlery?” she asks.

She points out that most people don’t use straws at home, “so why do we use straws when we are out?” Another co-founder of Tak Nak Straw, Carolyn Lau, says the campaign is just one of many ways to develop a consciousness of what we consume and how we consume it.

“What I find with people nowadays is that we take these conveniences for granted,” she says.

Tak Nak Straw wants Malaysians to start saying no to single-use plastic straws.

If you prefer to still use straws, buy a reusable one.

“You can buy a stainless steel straw. You can carry it in your bag. It’s washable and unbreakable,” she says.

Lau says that she is also looking to work with the orang asli community to make bamboo straws.

“We want to get all that information that is out there to Malaysians so that they can make informed choices.”

“We will get there, one straw at a time,” Lau says.

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