WALK down the city streets, in the kampung, along the beach, in the forest, in fact anywhere in this country and you will inevitably see it – plastic garbage. This is the most common litter in our country and it is not only drowning our nation but the entire planet as well. Even the oceans are teeming with plastic waste.
Plastic pollution is one of the most basic environmental problems we face today. Unfortunately, we tend to forget that we are the biggest culprit behind this problem and that we have to take drastic action to reduce and ultimately end plastic pollution.
Malaysians use three billion plastic bags per year. Controlling or even charging people to use them, as is happening with the “No Plastic Bag Day” every Saturday throughout the country, and consumers in Selangor being charged 20 sen for plastic shopping bags, is not enough to tackle this problem. Controlling the usage of single-use plastic shopping bags will indeed reduce the volume of plastic waste but we often neglect to identify the suitable substitutes for these bags. Since we still need carrier bags for our shopping, there will be times when it is unavoidable for us to use plastic bags even if it costs us 20 sen. Besides plastic bags, almost all packaging – from drinks to food and cleaning detergents – are plastic.
The current plastic pollution reduction rules and policies in Asian nations appear to principally encourage the use of bags made from biodegradable plastic, paper bags and non-woven shopping bags. Most commercially-available and cheap biodegradable plastic bags are still plastic and fossil fuel-based. Only bags that conform with the ASTM D6400 or EN 13432 compostability standard are truly biodegradable.
The conventional plastic bags over time will break down into smaller, more toxic petro-polymers, which eventually contaminate our soil and water and possible enter the animal and human food chain. Therefore, although these supposedly “greener” plastic bags break down into fragments in landfills and waterways, they contribute to microplastic pollution, posing a risk to marine life and other ecosystems.
Non-woven shopping bags are cheaper lightweight bags that look and feel like fabric and are normally given out as gift bags at events or sold at supermarket checkout lanes. These should be avoided as they are made of polypropylene and are therefore also plastic despite their resemblance to cotton or fabric. They are not durable, usually contain lead and break down into plastic fibres easily, contributing to microplastic pollution. They cannot be restored, recycled or composted.
Paper bags, although actually perishable as long as they do not have a plastic coating, plastic-based glue or laminate, have a high environmental price as they need a lot of water and energy to manufacture compared to plastic bags. However, as they are less harmful to human health once discarded, they can be safely used as food packaging.
Still, substituting plastic bags with paper bags will not reduce waste effectively, as paper bags are usually single-use and cannot be recycled once they become wet or contaminated with food, grease or dirt.
According to a study by Jambeck et al (published in the Science journal, February 2015), Malaysia is the eighth biggest producer of mismanaged plastic waste (waste that is not appropriately disposed of or recycled) out of 192 coastal countries in the world. This study estimated that in 2010, Malaysia would produce 940 million kilograms of mismanaged plastic waste, of which 140 to 370 million kilograms would be washed into the oceans. Thirteen percent of Malaysia’s solid waste are plastic, of which 55% are mismanaged.
Small portions of trash tossed into the street are regularly washed into storm drains when it rains. These then flow into rivers and other waterways and finally into the sea, leading to microplastic pollution that is damaging to marine life. So, instead of eating healthy seafood, we are literally consuming microplastic-polluted ones.
Over 100 million marine animals die each year due to plastic pollution in the ocean. Currently, it is estimated that there are one hundred million tonnes of plastic in oceans around the world. Marine plastic pollution has impacted at least 267 species worldwide, comprising 86% of all sea turtle species, 44% of all sea bird species and 43% of all marine mammal species.
Sea birds that feed on the ocean surface are especially prone to ingesting floating plastic pieces. As plastics break apart in the ocean, they release potentially toxic chemicals such as bisphenol A (BPA), which can enter the food chain when they are consumed by marine animals.
To effectively reduce plastic pollution, we need to change our attitude towards plastic usage and disposal. Long-term solutions include the creation of innovative programmes to increase recycling and composting, and to consistently reduce the need for rubbish bags.
There must be incentives and laws to make it easier for homes and businesses to dispose of waste without using rubbish bags, and for food and consumer goods to be sold without plastic wrapping and other packaging.
Increasing public awareness on plastic pollution, its impact, and recycling activities is a must. It is also time to add two more important elements to the current 3R (Reduce, Reuse, Recycle) mantra, and these are Refuse and Remove.
Rather than focusing so much energy on limiting the use of plastic shopping bags, Malaysia needs to increase the recycling of our plastic waste by increasing the number of collection bins and putting them all over the country.
Reduce plastic packaging for consumable and non-consumable goods with innovative green technology and environment-friendly materials. We have plenty of solutions and choices to make, but ultimately it is the will to do the right and responsible thing that matters – and this decision rests on every one of us.
SARAL JAMES MANIAM
Forum Air Malaysia