Put more focus on reducing, reusing plastic instead of recycling, say experts


KUALA LUMPUR: In the midst of a discussion on plastic waste, Federal Territories Solid Waste Management and Public Cleansing Corporation (SWCorp) director Ummi Kalthum Shuib whips out her phone to show her TikTok video.

Middle-aged with a friendly demeanor and an infectious lopsided grin, she is no aspiring influencer except in the cause of waste reduction.

In the short video, she is seen standing under a tent at the Ramadan bazaar in Putrajaya’s Precinct 3, reminding shoppers and sellers nearby to reduce the use of plastic bags.

"Imagine if you all brought recycling bags and didn't ask for extra plastic (bags) from sellers. You would have saved landfills from becoming full. You’d be helping us,” she said in the video as shoppers walked past her.

Ummi Kalthum told Bernama she was disappointed to see only a few had brought reusable shopping bags. It was the same at the Ramadan bazaars Bernama visited. Most shoppers preferred to use the plastic bags and packaging the sellers gave them.

When asked what they would do with the plastic items, some said they would try to recycle them.

While the sentiment is laudable, most of these plastic bags and packaging are headed for the landfill, something the circular economy strategy is supposed to prevent.

The circular economy is supposed to keep materials, products and services in circulation for as long as possible, thereby reducing the amount of trash in the ecosystem. Plastic waste gets recycled and turned into resin, which is sold and used to turn into other plastic products. Recycling is a billion-dollar industry.

Instead, figures from the Federal Territories SWCorp reflect what many experts are discovering - that although the recycling industry may be worth billions, not enough recycling is happening or even possible to keep pace with the amount of new plastic trash joining the cycle.

"These large companies ... still want to sell their products so they say, yes, we can do this. We can recycle. We can come up with this chemical recycling and come up with all these refined systems, but it is still perpetuating the production of plastics,” said Mageswari Sangaralingam, a researcher with Sahabat Alam Malaysia.

She and other environmentalists told Bernama the public have been sold a lie, that recycling was the primary solution to the plastic waste problem.

While recycling has a place in the green economy, too much emphasis has been put on getting people to recycle and not enough on reusing and reducing waste.

The United Nations pegged plastic production at around 363 million metric tonnes annually and predicted it to double by 2040.

Recycling not working

According to SWCorp figures, each Malaysian generates 1.17kg of municipal solid waste daily, which includes plastic, food, paper and glass. This trash may or may not be recycled.

In 2021 in Kuala Lumpur and Putrajaya, 101,949 metric tonnes of plastic, or 13% of the total 772, 349 metric tonnes of trash generated by the residents, ended up in landfills.

Only 152.87 metric tonnes of plastic was recycled, at a plastic recycling rate of 16%.

In 2022, the recycling rate of plastic improved, but the amount of plastic and general waste increased even more. Overall trash generated in Kuala Lumpur and Putrajaya last year stood at 796,795 metric tonnes of which plastic comprised 210,966 metric tonnes or 13%. The recycling rate for plastic was 18% while the recycling rate for all waste was 33.16%.

The Sunway University Extended Producer Responsibility Policy Review Report 2021 by the Jeffrey Sachs Centre on Sustainable Development and WWF-Malaysia said Malaysians generate about 14 million tonnes of trash annually, with dry recyclables such as plastic, paper, glass, metals and tetra pack making up 43.7% of it.

The disenchantment with recycling has been long in the making. By the nature of the product, plastic is not an easy substance to recycle.

For one thing, not all plastic waste can be recycled, some of which is due to people’s actions. The plastic recycling industry has stringent requirements in order to accept a plastic item for recycling. Clean and rigid plastics such as bottles, milk cartons and butter containers are recyclable. And some items like coffee cups and shower curtains cannot be recycled, something not many know.

How you send these items in for recycling also matters. For example, if someone fails to clean the plastic before putting them in the recycling bin, the food waste may contaminate the rest of the items in the bin.

According to Malaysia Plastics Recyclers Association secretary-general Datuk Johnson Yoon, the cost of sorting and cleaning the plastic materials is not always worth it.

"When you send (dirty plastics) to recyclers, they have to think of a way to wash it. Hot wash or whatsoever. And the cost will increase,” he said.

Plastic cannot be recycled endlessly, either. They will break down after going through the recycling process a few times, so there will always be a need for newly produced plastic or virgin plastic for recycling.

The Malaysia Plastics Sustainability Roadmap 2021-2030 reported that in 2019, Malaysia had 1.69 million metric tonnes of recyclable plastics, of which an estimated 1.4 million metric tonnes were disposed of in the same year. The potential total material value, if the disposed waste had been recycled, was equal to US$1.3bil (RM5.77bil).

But Yoon said even if all that plastic could be or had been recycled, the amount was not enough to keep recycling companies out of the red.

"It’s a population issue. Every single resident in Peninsular Malaysia has to finish (two) 1.5l bottles of soft drink every single day and give the bottles to the (PET bottle recycling) factories, and only then will they get enough (to meet the target of) 1,000 tonnes of recycled plastic bottles,” he said.

As such, recycling companies say they need to import plastic waste in order to break even and contribute to the circular economy, something environmentalists and environmental agencies are not happy about.

Reduce focus on recycling

A Feb 17, 2023, visual graphic put Malaysia as the third-biggest contributor to plastic pollution in the ocean with 73,098 metric tonnes, after the Philippines with 356,371 metric tonnes and India with 126,513 metric tonnes.

Activists and environmentalists have called the infographic misleading, describing the amount of plastic trash from the countries as "waste colonialism” - partly due to rich countries exporting plastic waste to countries that have fewer resources to manage the waste.

The dark side of plastic recycling unveiled itself in 2018 when China banned all imports of mixed plastic waste. Businesses went to Malaysia instead, sending mixed plastic waste to the country and turning several areas in Peninsular Malaysia into dump sites.

The most notable victim of this was the small town of Jenjarum in Kuala Langat, Selangor, where illegal recyclers dumped 17,000 metric tonnes of imported mixed plastic waste.

Malaysia tightened regulations and sent back the dirty plastic but till today, some dump sites for mixed plastic waste remain, risking the health of nearby residents and potentially contaminating the water supply.

And barring any serious action from the public, companies or the government, the damage is set to grow even worse.

Mageswari said the time has come to face some unfortunate realities and rethink the waste management approach in Malaysia.

"The 3Rs (we learned) were reduce, reuse and recycle but we, the Malaysian government actually, have been putting more emphasis on recycling. Now, we are looking more into reducing and also have to add (the importance of) refilling, rethink,” she said.

Zero Waste Malaysia co-founder and director Khor Sue Yee agreed, saying: "We do encourage people to recycle less. Why? Because recycling requires a lot of energy and also globally, the recycling rate is 9%. In Zero Waste Malaysia, we always believe waste prevention is better than the cure.”

UCSI University professor of environmental engineering Prof Datuk Dr Ahmad Ibrahim told Bernama he is especially concerned with single-use plastics like plastic bags. He said one way to motivate people to give up single-use plastic is to give them positive reinforcement.

"I was thinking, if you go to supermarkets with your own bags, maybe the supermarkets can give some discount on your purchase, like 10% or something like that,” he said.

The experts also suggested companies sell refills, such as shampoos and detergents so consumers can reuse old containers. Another is to produce reusable and washable sanitary items such as menstrual cups, instead of landfill-bound sanitary napkins.

All this does not mean that there is no role for recycling in Malaysia’s circular economy, however.

Ummi Kalthum is intent on getting the recycling rate to improve to 40% by 2025, a target set by the government. But to reach this and to reduce waste, she told Bernama the agency needed some enforcement power to take action against small-scale polluters and illegal dumping, instead of just the big offenders.

"Now, we have to open cases one by one. It’s tiring. Let’s say the fine in one case is RM50, we’d have to open an investigation file which costs at least RM300 ... so it’s a waste of money,” she said.

She also said there needed to be separation-at-the-source regulations for people to follow.

To improve recycling rates, she and others suggested following the examples of Germany and other countries which have recycling centres at supermarkets and a deposit-refund system for recyclables.

As for dealing with current and future trash, there are two schools of thought. Rather than dumping all the unrecycled trash in a landfill, some experts support imperfect solutions such as using incinerators to burn the trash.

Although it can pollute the environment, Ahmad said the trade-off may be worth it as the incinerator will generate heat that can be used to power the electrical grid, instead of coal. Others, however, do not want any solutions that involve polluting the environment further.

However, all agreed on reducing the amount of plastic waste going to landfills, with Khor stressing recycling should be the last resort before landfills.

"Recycling is part of the ecosystem but we also have to do it right,” she said. - Bernama

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