WE refer to the letter "High time to move to compostable plastics" (The Star, Aug 4).
Plastics is indeed an invention that has changed human lifestyle, bringing both convenience and safety at a minimal cost.
There are reasons behind plastics being the material of choice for various sectors, including packaging, automotive and medical. Its lightweight, effective barrier properties and low carbon footprint are some of the advantages of using plastics compared to other manufacturing materials.
Throughout the current Covid-19 pandemic, plastics has proven its value in safeguarding both frontliners and the rakyat with personal protective equipment such as face masks and face shields. Isolation gowns, too, are made primarily from plastics.
However, the extensive usage of plastics has created the problem of mismanaged waste due to the irresponsible act of littering as well as poor waste management system. It must be stressed that this is a behavioural and attitude problem, and not due to the use of a particular material.
Take Japan as an example. Japan has a substantially higher rate of plastics usage, but it does not face any issue with plastics being an environmental problem simply because the waste is being managed responsibly and effectively by not littering and through proper
segregation, recycling and sound waste management practices. We should learn to inculcate this positive attitude of being responsible for our own waste.
The Malaysian plastics industry has been advocating for responsible management of plastics waste through the practice of proper rubbish disposal (not littering), waste separation at source (SAS) and the 3Rs (Reduce, Reuse, Recycle) for many years following the same efforts by the government.
Numerous communication, education and public awareness programmes have been organised by the Malaysian Plastics Manufacturers Association (MPMA) to educate the public on the importance of not littering, and separating plastics from other waste for recycling.
Malaysia has a mature and vibrant plastics recycling industry, which could tremendously reduce the amount of waste being sent to landfills.
To make plastics recycling easier, a plastics coding system was developed. This involves labeling the products with a code to identify the primary resin, making it easier to sort them out for recycling. The system is recognised worldwide and has been in place for many years. Locally, the Malaysian Standards MS 1405:2008 provides guidelines for the coding.
Despite negative perception towards plastics recycling due to the heavy media coverage of the illegal action of certain parties, the local plastics recycling industry is a heavily regulated industry. It is closely monitored by numerous government agencies, including the Department of Environment and the National Solid Waste Management Department (NSWMD), to ensure compliance with environmental regulations in the country.
Compostable plastics is a commendable advancement in the effort to produce "environment-friendly" plastics. The general perception is that compostable plastics are degradable and are therefore the solution to fossil fuel-based plastics, which do not degrade easily.
But compostable plastics require optimum conditions of prolonged temperatures above 50°C for effective degradation.
The United Nations Environment Programme (Unep) released a report titled “Single Use Plastics – A Roadmap for Sustainability”, which states that “Often, ‘biodegradable’ plastics items (including single-use plastic bags and containers) break down completely only if exposed to prolonged high temperatures above 50°C. Such conditions are met in incineration plants but rarely in the environment. Therefore, even bioplastics derived from renewable sources (such as corn starch, cassava roots or sugar cane) or from bacterial fermentation of sugar or lipids (PHA) do not automatically degrade in the environment and especially not in the ocean.”
Shifting to compostable plastics will only bring benefits if - and only if - it is separated and sent to industrial composting facilities to be composted under optimum conditions. Given the complete absence of such a facility in our country, compostable plastics will have to be sent to landfills, making it pointless to invest in it in the first place.
There are studies undertaken by organisations comparing the Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) of plastics versus alternatives. One such study is the “Life Cycle Assessment of Grocery Carrier Bags” conducted by the Ministry of Environment and Food of Denmark in 2018. The study compared the LCA of 14 types of grocery carrier bags and concluded that conventional plastic bags provide the overall lowest environmental impacts compared to other types of bags.
Moreover, compostable plastics is at least three times more expensive than conventional plastics, leading to additional financial burden to the rakyat, which is a situation we do not wish to happen during these difficult times.
Further, most packaging, especially for food, requires that the material meet the functional criteria that would protect and enhance the shelf life of the product. Compostable plastics have limited functional properties and have therefore failed, thus far, to be a suitable alternative.
At this point in time, the most effective way to minimise leakage of plastics into the environment is to learn to always use a bin and separate plastics for recycling.
From brand owners looking into improving the design of plastics packaging for recycling to upstream resin producers investing in chemical recycling technology and recyclers working closely with the government to further develop the local plastics recycling industry, the industry is working hard to bring about positive changes. We believe we could all continue to enjoy the benefits of plastics if, and only if, we learn to manage plastics the right way.
Let’s not litter and always use a bin so that it becomes a culture within our society!
WEE CHING YUN
Malaysian Plastics Manufacturers Association