High time to move to compostable plastics

Photo: Bloomberg

I REFER to the letter “Sort your plastics for proper recycling” (The Star, Aug 1).

While there is a strong case for the recycling of plastics, the practical long-term solution would be to stop using single-use plastics derived from petroleum.

As rightly pointed out by the writer, this type of plastic was a technological wonder when it was first introduced, as it offered convenience for the contemporary lifestyle. However, it has turned into a pollution nightmare that is causing problems for our environment and ourselves.

But the statement that we (consumers) have only ourselves to blame for the mess we are in with plastic pollution is debatable, biased and misguided. When plastics were first introduced, the manufacturers did not advocate recycling for the used materials.

It was only when plastic waste threatened to overwhelm our landfills, rivers and seas (and it is now in our food chain and potable water) that the manufacturers took action, but their attempts were only half-hearted initially. There has been some uptick after much vocal opposition and drastic action taken by concerned citizens.

Most plastics, including the ubiquitous shopping bag, can be recycled, says the local plastic manufacturers’ association. Plastic recycling, however, is not infinite, unlike glass and metal. Most plastics can only be recycled once, and they end up in landfills after their second lifespan.

The recycling process also involves time and money. Plastic waste sent for recycling must be clean, which means a lot will not get recycled at all because cleaning them requires manpower, machines and water, and maybe chemicals (pic). This will not be cost-effective for a lot of recycling plant operators unless they have access to cheap manpower and water. The runoff from cleaning plastic waste must also be treated.

These constraints will definitely hamper efforts to increase the recycling rate from the current 30% even though awareness of the benefits of, and actual, recycling by people has gone up.

Packaging does help to increase the shelf life of food, as the writer pointed out. But today, packaging (sometimes over-packaging) of food items is a massive contributor to the plastic waste problem. The huge amount of packing materials contributed by e-shopping also adds to the plastic waste mountain. Few, if any, recycling centres take the clingfilm, bubble wrap, plastic boxes or containers and small plastic bags from the e-shopping packaging.

Compostable organic materials, which are already available in Malaysia, should be used to preserve food instead.

The plastic manufacturing industry is indeed important for the economy and is a huge contributor to the nation’s coffers and employment. However, much of the income generated are from the sale of single-use plastics to Western countries, many of which will ban them in the next few years as they opt for compostable alternatives. Other countries, including Malaysia, have followed their lead and set an end date for usage of single-use plastics.

This is where the Roadmap Towards Zero Single-use Plastics introduced by the Energy, Science, Technology, Environment and Climate Change Ministry (now Science, Technology and Innovation Ministry) must be continued but with a new target date of 2025 or earlier instead of 2030.

It would be better to move to the manufacturing of compostable single-use plastics now. The technology is available and we have the raw materials. Manufacturers just need to make some modifications to their machinery and production process to start the compostable plastics revolution.

The government must provide incentives to help kick-start this move. This is of paramount importance to the health of our economy, environment and future generations.


Petaling Jaya

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