Battle against plastic dependence rages on

You use, you pay: Posters to remind consumers of the RM1 cost for each plastic bag seen at a shopping complex in Jelutong.

GEORGE TOWN: Making people pay for plastic bags has helped to reduce their use, but the battle goes on.

At Penang’s hypermarkets, supermarkets, department stores, convenience stores, fast-food restaurants, petrol stations, chain stores and pharmacies, the use of plastic bags dropped by 78% from 2020 to 2021.

Since Jan 1, 2021, these establishments do not give out plastic bags at all from Monday to Wednesday while on other days of the week, it will cost RM1 each.

Penang Green Council (PGC) general manager Josephine Tan said she was happy with the sharp reduction, but admitted that the challenge to free society of its reliance on plastic bags is still ongoing.

“The ‘no plastic bag’ campaign has not been extended to hawkers or wet market businesses yet.

“Our ultimate goal is to implement a ‘no plastic bag every day’ campaign in Penang. However, we are still looking for better alternatives in packaging materials that fulfil the 3As criteria – availability, accessibility and affordability – for hawkers and wet markets,” she added.

Tan said completely eradicating the unnecessary use of plastic items was still a faraway aim.

According to a survey conducted by PGC on the impact of the movement control order on waste generation in Penang in 2020, the use of single-use plastics in the “more than four pieces per week per person” category increased (food containers by 49%, plastic spoons and forks 31%, and plastic straws 31%).

“This was due to the increase in online purchases and food deliveries following the Covid-19 pandemic,” she said.

Tan said PGC was working with local authorities to raise awareness by giving educational notices to food establishments that provide customers with plastic straws and bags.

“We distribute posters for the ‘No Plastic Straws Campaign’ and ‘No Plastic Bag Day Campaign’ for food operators to display at their premises,” she added.

Tan said the goal was to effect a change in consumer behaviour and start getting them to be mindful about bringing their own containers when buying food.

While it is challenging to reach the goal by 2025, it is possible with comprehensive strategies and a collective effort, she added.

“It is almost impossible for us to be totally plastic-free as this material is highly needed in most industries.

“Actually, it is a wonderful innovation but it is just that the way people dispose of it and the unnecessary usage – especially single-use plastics – have to change,” she said.

Universiti Sains Malaysia Centre for Marine and Coastal Studies director Prof Datuk Dr Aileen Tan said the most visible effects of plastic marine litter are the ingestion, suffocation and entanglement of hundreds of marine species.

“Marine wildlife such as seabirds, whales, fish and turtles mistake plastic waste for food. Most then die of starvation as their stomachs become clogged with plastic,” she said.

The greater danger is when plastic waste is torn up by the elements into minute pieces called microplastics.

“Microplastics are invisible to the naked eye, making them easy for marine species to ingest,” she said.

This introduces microplastics into the human food chain, Prof Tan added.

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