KUDOS to Tan Sri Lee Lam Thye for bringing up a very pertinent issue, very early in 2019. I am referring to his letter “Authorities must walk the talk” on Jan 7 in The Star’s Views page (online at tinyurl.com/star-rubbish), and also our deputy prime minister’s new year message calling upon Malaysians to care for the environment.
True enough, single-use plastic bags are still rampantly being used, not just by the public but by contract workers hired by local town and city authorities.
I would like to share here my experiences with grass cutters and municipal workers.
In March 2018, I visited Tanjung Balau beach during a family trip to Desaru, Johor. The beach was littered with all kinds of plastic waste. Nobody was picking up the litter, but in the parking bay nearby a worker was cleaning up fallen leaves with a blower. I was astounded that there seemed to be more concern over fallen leaves that are part of the natural environment rather than the plastics that will end up in the sea.
On another occasion, I was called to inspect a retention pond in Melaka for a school environmental project. The place is quite nice as the oval-shaped pond has tembusu, pulai and tanjung trees all along its edge. I spoke to the local officers present regarding the plastic litter strewn all over; surprisingly, what they were more worried about was the leaf litter. They didn’t seem to register my worry about the plastic rubbish, including ties left by grass cutters, and kept harping on how to manage all the leaves on the ground since staffing is an issue.
On a regular basis, my husband, son and I carry out “plogging” (an activity that began in Sweden that combines jogging/walking with picking up litter) when we walk around the field in our neighbourhood. Among the rubbish we collect are the grasscutters’ yellow or orange plastic ties. For those who might not know, these are lengths of plastic that are a part of the machine that cut the grass with a vigorous rotary movement. These ties have to be changed frequently and when they make the change, the workers tend to just discard the used plastic pieces wherever they are, contributing to more plastic rubbish.
We have collected many of these ties (see picture above) despite having previously informed the person in charge of the workers of the need to collect them. I believe the grasscutters have no knowledge about how plastics will remain on the field for aeons, lasting longer than their own lives many times over.
Another worrying thing that grasscutters do is to take a short cut and spray weed killer on grassy pavements. I believe this should not be in the contract agreement, and in fact, should be specifically prohibited.
A friend who planted some plants by the roadside found them dying too. Instead of seeing nice green carpets of grass, the road verges comprise dead brown grass, and if you look closely enough, there are also dead ants, millipedes and other insects, and most probably dead microscopic creatures created by our Almighty God to maintain the balance in the soil environment.
From what I can see of public grasscutting, nothing much has changed in 20 years. How wonderful it would be if grasscutters could also collect the cut grass in reusable baskets, as suggested by Lee, and make compost that will help produce good quality, fertile soil.
This should be the role of the local authorities when they hire or renew the contracts of landscape and grounds-keeping companies. This way, they cut down on the use of plastic and they also produce a by-product that can be sold or used to improve the landscape.
Lots of plastic bags are also unnecessarily used when public drains are cleaned, when the dirt and rubbish from the drains are collected into them. At the end of the day you can see many plastic bags, usually yellow ones, lining the cleared drains, waiting for pickup. Mind you, most of these bags are only partly filled. It is such a pain to see this as you know that all of them will be thrown into landfills.
If only these council or contract workers could be told to collect the soil from the drains and put it around the trees by the roadsides to help them be healthier. And if there is plastic and other non-biodegradable rubbish, they can discard or recycle it.
Information on the hazards of plastic and its impact on our soil and water, especially our oceans – and not forgetting our seafood! – has been widely promoted via social media and in news reports. However, the message does not seem to get through to local authorities or their contractors.
While still on the subject of plastics, our ministers announced in the middle of 2018 that plastic straws should soon be phased out. However, the message does not seem to getting through to restaurant owners and workers.
Every time I eat out and order drinks, I will tell the waiter, “No straw, please”, but the drinks will invariably come with straws in them (even plain iced water). When I remind them that I didn’t want the straw, they take it out and bin it! At one stall, when I stated my usual order, the owner carelessly said, “If you don’t want just throw lah”. Sigh!
I was in Phuket in January 2018 on a tour and found the place very clean. Even on the faraway islands further out from Phuket Island, you don’t see plastic garbage under stilt houses by the sea, as is a common sight at our seaside villages. It makes me wonder whether Malaysians are beyond help in being taught to be clean or to be concerned about the environment.
DR ZORINA KHALID
Malaysian Nature Society
Negri Sembilan/Melaka Branch