Tackling increasing plastics pollution in Malaysia

YESTERDAY was World Consumer Rights Day and the theme for 2021 is “Tackling Plastic Pollution”.

Plastic pollution is the scourge of humanity. In Malaysia the problem is serious. In 2020 we used 148,000 tonnes of plastic packaging for food. Our annual per capita plastic packaging usage is 16.78kg. This use of plastic has been increasing year by year despite campaigns designed to move people away from single-use plastics.

The situation here is made worse by the import of waste from developed countries. United Nations Comtrade data indicates that Malaysia imported 333.5 million kilos of plastic waste/scraps in 2019 – and that doesn’t include the large quantities that are imported illegally. With Malaysians producing large quantities of plastic waste ourselves, it makes no sense for the authorities to permit the import of more such waste. While it may contribute to the profits of recycling companies, it has serious adverse effects on the health of our people and our environment.

Plastic waste contains toxic chemicals that can seriously impair health. For instance, when we eat fish we are ingesting plastic particles because 90% of fish have such particles in their stomachs. According to a 2019 report in the Environmental Science & Technology journal, we consume 70,000 micro plastics particles every year.

Toxic chemicals in plastics can cause serious illnesses like kidney damage, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases, cancer, coronary disease and others. Some of these diseases appear only many years after exposure or ingestion.

What must consumers do to address this problem? The most important thing is to reduce consumption of non-essential foods and goods. This will contribute very much to the reduced use of plastics for packaging. Don’t use plastic bags when you go shopping, use environmentally-friendly alternatives such as jute or cloth bags instead. Reduce waste through reuse and recycling.

Covid-19 has led to increased plastics use resulting in more waste. People have been buying food and goods packaged in plastic for delivery. We can cut down on some of these single-use plastics by cooking and eating our food at home. Also, we should not buy unnecessary goods online.

The government must take urgent measures to deal with the problem. It must impose a total ban on the import of plastics waste from other countries. Our people’s health and environmental integrity must not be sacrificed on the altar of private profit.

Manufacturers of plastic products must be made legally responsible for collecting their products after use and recycling or reusing them. Our laws must also be amended to severely punish those who pollute our rivers, land and the atmosphere.

The government’s road map towards zero single-use plastics must be implemented efficiently and effectively, and its progress monitored with reports published regularly. Currently, the roadmap’s initial target is plastic straws and bags. However, we have various other plastic products that have to be tackled too – for instance, plastic containers, cups, cutlery and wrappers are still being used and dumped in landfills or rivers or end up as litter after a single use. These types of plastics have different target timelines. We can’t wait, though. We must reduce plastic pollution by refusing to use all unnecessary plastics, especially single-use plastics.

The plastics products industry needs to put the health of our people before profits and take measures to alleviate plastics pollution. Redesigning products, packaging and delivery systems to eliminate the use of single-use plastic packaging is the ultimate solution to plastics pollution.

Fighting plastics pollution is not just the government’s responsibility, it’s something all Malaysians must work on together with the government.


President, Consumers Association of Penang (CAP)

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