Living a less plastic life is possible

Bane of modern convenience: While many Malaysians now bring their own bags, that step is undermined when they use these freely available single-use bags.

I AM getting stares. They range from mildly curious to “Why is she taking so long?”

I am at my supermarket, at the vegetable weighing counter to be exact. People are looking because they think I am holding up the line by the somewhat unusual way in which I bag my fresh produce.

You see, I try to be an environmentally conscientious shopper. That awareness stemmed from years of being the editor in charge of environment stories when I was with The Star. I felt I shouldn’t just preach but practise as well.

I started by carrying food containers in the car boot for takeaways and lots of reusable shopping bags for groceries and then sorting out my household waste for recycling.

Long-time readers of my column may remember I have written on environmental concerns like global warming, recycling and plastic pollution many times over the years.

Plastic pollution is a topic that concerns me deeply as it has devastating effects on the planet. Our waterways are choked and plastic waste is killing marine life. Microplastics are everywhere, including in the food we eat. There is so much plastic in the oceans, I have stopped buying sea salt.

Governments everywhere got serious about tackling the plastic menace when China stopped importing trash from other countries in 2018. Before that, it was the world’s largest importer of waste plastics and processed hard-to-recycle plastics.

But along came Covid-19 last year which sidelined this and other pressing concerns. Instead, with more people working from home, household, especially plastic, waste sky-rocketed. Disposable masks are probably the fastest growing litter item.

My household is definitely guilty of producing a lot of waste. So with more time on my hands, I decided to embark on a more responsible household waste separation effort. Apart from the existing plastic and glass bin, I set up different boxes for paper/cardboard waste and used aluminium, batteries and light bulbs several months ago.

My adult children order in quite a lot of food and snacks and they must now wash and dry the takeaway cardboard containers before binning them for recycling. Ditto aluminium drink cans and milk and juice cartons. We snip off the plastic openers on those too.

It was hard getting compliance from the family in the beginning but now it’s routine with only the occasional “I forgot lah” moments.

Once we have amassed enough, we send our recyclables to a collection centre instead of leaving them out for the garbage collectors.

My biggest guilt is my fondness for plastic. I love using airtight plastic containers and ziplock bags for storing my meat and other cooking ingredients. I do wash and reuse them but they eventually end up in the garbage bin.

To assuage that guilt, I have gone the extra mile to reduce the use of single-use plastic in other ways.

It’s been quite a few years since shoppers have had to pay for plastic bags at supermarket checkout counters. Penang has gone further. Since Jan 1,2021, it has extended its Monday “No Plastic Bag Day” to Tuesday and Wednesday as well and upped the fee from 20 sen to RM1 a bag on the other days.

Bravo to that. Indeed, Malaysians have become conscientious shoppers and most bring their own grocery bags to pack their purchases at the checkout counter. But my beef is the amount of free single-use plastic bags that shoppers use before they reach the checkout lane.

Supermarkets generously provide spools of single-use plastic bags in the fruit and vegetable sections. These bags are worse than the ones sold at checkout counters because shoppers can tear off unlimited bags. And people usually use one bag per fruit or vegetable.In the end, their carts are filled with single-use bags which can’t be reused. I used to do the same until it dawned on me I could do better. Which is to bring my own plastic bags for my fresh produce.

I use whatever I have saved up: from the ubiquitous pink or orange bags to thicker plastic bags wrapping electrical goods or cosmetics and skincare products. My favourite bags are sturdy ones with drawstrings that contained skincare masks I bought in Seoul a couple of years ago.

I will also put several vegetables into one bag. For example, I may put carrots, daikon and zucchini in one bag; spinach and kangkung in another; leeks, spring onions and coriander in yet another.

Initially, when I brought my bags to the weighing counter, the staff were confused and tried to separate the items. But soon enough, they got used to me and my multiple items in a bag. They leave one item in the bag, take out the rest, and weigh them separately before putting them all back in. All the price tags are then stuck on the outside of that one bag.

That does take a little more time, which is why other shoppers behind me do sometimes look rather impatient, but no one has ever complained, as far as I know.

I have seen a few responsible shoppers using reusable woven net or mesh bags for their fruits and veggies which the supermarket sells. But these are expensive so I prefer my cheap alternative.

When shopping for meat, I avoid the ones that are prepacked in cling-film-wrapped plastic trays by asking the staff to give me my chicken drumsticks and wings in 2kg bags straight from the freezer.

Once home, we peel off the price stickers and the bags will be rinsed and dried if they are wet and grubby. And back into my boot with the grocery bags they go.

It takes a bit of effort but I am used to it and it makes me feel better that I don’t have to throw out heaps of single-use plastic at home.

I have been carrying a rolled-up shopping bag in my handbag for more than 15 years and I am glad that my two daughters have made it their habit too. I do look for products with less packaging, like sliced cheese sold in bulk without individual plastic wrapping, but there is no escaping plastic.

Until science can find us cheaper, environmentally safer alternatives, we can’t completely let go of our plastic – clearly so in the Age of Covid when it is used so extensively in personal protection equipment.

So while it is good that people have to pay for plastic shopping bags, perhaps they should also pay for the single-use ones they tear off so happily at the fish, fruit and veggie sections. They might be persuaded to bring their own like this aunty.

One more thing I am pleased about: I have started composting my kitchen waste. I use the bokashi method that ferments food waste in an airtight container. I bought my kit online and I am getting good results already. Join me, will you?

The views expressed here are entirely the writer’s own.

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