What will it take to go green?

So far, various campaigns have failed to change people’s attitudes and habits over the years.

MALAYSIANS use an average of nine billion plastic bags a year. Yes. Nine billion. Let that number sink in. That’s more than the world’s entire population.

Actually, scratch that, we probably use more than nine billion. That figure is based on plastic bags that are taken away from hypermarkets and supermarkets.

If you include department stores, night markets, wet markets or even the mamak shops where you pack your teh tarik or mee goreng, this figure should at least double.

This should not be tolerated, at least not for a country that has aspirations to become a developed nation.

For sure, the Government has tried various means to curb plastic bag usage – the no plastic bag day (first introduced in Selangor in 2008 and subsequently nationwide in 2011), recycling campaigns and recently, the waste separation regulations instituted in various states.

While all these measures have been trumpeted as initiatives to protect the environment, none of them have actually succeeded. Despite the millions spent in awareness campaigns, Ma­lay­­­­sians, to a large extent, continue to have a lackadaisical attitude towards “green” initiatives.

A recent study by Monash University showed that the “No plastic bags on Saturday” policy has raised awareness, but it has had a negligible effect on reducing plastic bag use. The wide-ranging ethnographic study found that the policy’s objectives, of reducing waste sent to landfills and reducing pollution, had not been achieved.

To verify this study, The Star sent a number of our journalists to various Klang Valley supermarkets, hypermarkets and department stores on Saturdays for the last three months.

These journalists found the consumers’ indifference shocking – it was hard to find people who actually brought their reusable bags when shopping. They found that the general perception of consumers was that they were aware of the “no plastic bag” ruling, but they either didn’t care or found ways to circumvent this ruling.

These methods include using the white plastic rolled bags meant for vegetable and produce sections to carry their shopping items, paying 20 sen for a plastic bag and cramming everything inside, and also using the shopping trolley to transfer their groceries to their vehicles.

Obviously, we Malaysians are an ingenious lot when it comes to saving 20 sen!

Two new rulings will come into force in January next year. A polystyrene food packaging ban will take effect on Jan 1 in Selangor and KL, and additionally the “no plastic bag” ruling on Saturday will be extended to seven days a week in Selangor, also effective Jan 1.

Looks like our authorities mean business, but then again earlier “green” legislation hasn’t really been effective. Will our businesses and, more importantly, our consumers adhere to these new rulings? Probably not, as trials have already shown a lack of enthusiasm for outright bans.

The Ramadan bazaars in Selangor were part of the initial phase of the campaign – all 12 local councils were tasked with ensuring Ramadan bazaars stuck to the polystyrene ban in June.

But cost was a major barrier for the traders who participated in the campaign. With each biodegradable packing priced at between 30 sen and 50 sen, some of them were forced to increase prices of food sold.

The councils sold recyclable packs in 100 pieces for RM24. Local authorities in Selangor and KL may have to absorb some of this cost if a complete ban on polystyrene containers is to be successful.

While the ban itself has yet to gain traction with businesses and consumers, the Waste Management Association of Malaysia has warned the Government that a complete ban could in turn create a negative impact to the environment.

Its honorary secretary, Mohd Radhi Cheah, said that while polystyrene was toxic and harmful to nature, a complete ban would encourage the use of paper packaging, which could have an even bigger environmental impact.

“To make a paper bag, it takes 2.2 times more energy and it uses more than 4.7 times the amount of water compared to plastic bags,” he said, adding that the production of paper also produces 3.1 times more greenhouse gases.

Radhi, however, insisted that the association was not in favour of plastics but stressed that the impact of such decisions on the environment should be taken into account before implementing them.

The other key regulation that has seen an indifferent response is the waste separation at source ruling, in force since June 1. Households in Kuala Lumpur and six other states were already warned to separate their garbage in September last year.

June 1 was the day when enforcement of this new ruling was to take place, but as of yet, not a single summons has been issued to households that do not separate their waste.

Millions have again been spent on the recyclable bins and these can be seen in housing estates, commercial areas and also apartments. But while the facilities are in place, the public have yet to fully embrace waste separation.

My condominium is a typical example – the management committee installed large recycling bins for residents months ago, but it was forced to place smaller recycling containers on each floor of the apartment simply because the residents weren’t utilising the facilities.

Yes, public apathy is arguably the number one reason why “greening” efforts fail. The Government’s awareness campaigns when it comes to plastic bags and waste separation have not had the desired impact, and we may need to try other means, including a tougher approach to change people’s attitudes.

The writer feels that consumers should be charged RM1 for a plastic bag from next year. This may seem exorbitant, but shoppers will be forced to bring their own reusable bags.

Opinion , brian martin , recycling , plastic bags


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