Lethal overload of plastic

So much waste: Workers clearing mounds of plastic waste floating in Sg Klang. — AFP

THE World Wild Fund for Nature (WWF) has reported that compared with China, Indonesia, Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam, Malaysia has the highest annual per capita plastic consumption, at 16.8kg per person.

All six nations contribute 60% of the estimated eight million tonnes of plastic entering the world’s oceans each year. Coincidently, 60% is also the percentage of plastic waste found in the roughly 1,000 tonnes of rubbish collected every month from one of the world’s dirtiest rivers, our very own Sg Klang.

Malaysia is ranked at the unflattering top of annual per capita plastic consumption rates because we are among the wealthiest of those six nations, according to the report. The plastic comes from plastic packaging from food delivery and day-to-day purchases from supermarkets – these are wealthy habits. Although classified as wealthy, our nation has not invested in and upgraded rubbish collection services and infrastructure. Rubbish that does not end up in landfills turns up in illegal dumpsites or in our nation’s waterways.

Since the fanfare and trumpeting of the Roadmap to Zero Single-Use Plastic in October 2018, besides some states imposing charges on single-use plastic bags and banning straws, it has all been very silent. Even fires in Kedah’s landfills with plastic waste as the main fuel did not stoke any urgent reforms on plastic waste from the relevant authorities and the government.

Recent gung-ho tirades about not being the rubbish dump of other countries’ waste does not address the problems generated by our own consumers, businesses and lethargic government policies and action.

Plastic waste hurts the economy and health of the nation and all its people – and, sadly, the poor bear the brunt of it. Detractors of the single-use plastic ban have always played on the sentiment that the poor will suffer more should charges be imposed on single-use plastic or if it’s banned outright. But WWF reports that plastic packaging in food deliveries and purchases from supermarkets are the main culprits in the 16.8kg of plastic waste we each generate. Another likely source is multiple layers of packaging in e-shopping, a booming trend. And all this is a part of the daily lives of the wealthy, not the poor.

To help reduce plastic packaging and help clean up the waste generated, the government should impose a tax on all food and e-shopping deliveries. The nationwide implementation of charges for plastic bags should be brought forward from the end of 2021 to the middle of this year and minimum charges raised from 20 sen to 50 sen, with an outright ban by 2025. Similarly, impose the same charges and ban plastic cups, food containers and cutlery.

For plastic bottles, charge a minimum starting tax of 20 sen for the smallest bottle with amounts increasing for larger bottles. A complete nationwide ban on plastic straws (except for health or hygiene use) should come into force by the middle of this year, not 2022.

Part of the taxes collected from these sources can be used to subsidise current alternative compostable products and support further research and development of such products until such time when the alternatives are as economical as plastic products. The taxes can also be used to alleviate the plight of the poor if they are affected by the charges or ban on plastic.

The development and upgrading of rubbish collection and infrastructure will benefit and improve with increased investments from the tax revenue.

Single-stream recycling should be started in all urban areas and introduced gradually nationwide. This can reduce the waste going into landfills or being burnt. With less nonbiodegrable toxic plastic waste to clean up, bury or burn, our land, air and water will be cleaner and healthier, with a similar positive effect on the population.

Consumers can make Malaysia drop from highest to lowest annual per capita plastic consumption by, first and foremost, refusing plastic, then by reducing, recycling and reusing it. Consumers must realise it is our choices and voices that drive manufacturers and businesses to produce all this plastic.

Plastic is also a major contributor to climate change as, being a petroleum-based product, its extraction, manufacture and disposal produces carbon emissions. In 2019, the manufacture and incineration of plastic produced more than 850 million metric tonnes of greenhouse gases.

We can put a big dent in this number when we stop using so much single-use plastic materials and ensure that those we do use are recycled.

This lethal overload of plastic on our earth and in our daily lives cannot be reduced without strong will and concerted action by both the government and the people. Everyone needs to act with purpose and in concert now to ensure that plastic will not be a scourge for people and other living beings on earth in the future.


Petaling Jaya

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