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The plastic menace

Selangor's No Plastic Bag Day campaign

Selangor's No Plastic Bag Day campaign

“IT’s not sexy, that’s why nobody cares,” a friend comments on why few Malaysians are concerned about the problem of plastic waste even though it threatens the environment that sustains us. “It’s sexier to talk about renewable energy and green buildings than how we handle our trash,” the friend adds.

That is until some of our state and local governments took the initiative to launch No Plastic Bag Day campaigns. Penang was the first to launch the campaign in July 2009. Those without reusable bags have to pay 20 sen for a plastic bag when they shop on Mondays. In January 2010, the campaign was extended to include Tuesdays and Wednesdays. At the same time, Selangor launched its own No Plastic Bag Day campaign on Saturdays. Subsequently, the Miri and Sibu municipal councils in Sarawak, as well as Kota Kinabalu city hall and six other districts in Sabah announced similar campaigns.

How effective are these campaigns? Can they really help save the planet? And what can be done to make these campaigns more popular?

Campaigns’ effectiveness

The idea of banning plastic bags to reduce its use is not new. In 2002, Ireland imposed a 15 euro cent tax on plastic bags, and its use dropped over 90% within five months. In the same year, Bangladesh banned polyethylene bags in Dhaka as the bags were choking the drainage system and causing floods in the capital.

China banned plastic bags in 2008. A year later, it was reported that the country saved the equivalent of 1.6 million tonnes of oil and 40 billion bags. Other countries that have introduced additional charges or tax on plastic bags include Rwanda, Eritrea and Switzerland.

In Selangor, the use of plastic bags was reduced by five million in the first four months of its campaign. In Penang, the amount was one million bags over the same period.

(Pic by roberto / sxc.hu)

(Pic by roberto / sxc.hu)

Despite such reductions in plastic bag use, Ireland’s scheme has been criticised for triggering a 400% increase in the purchase of bin liners and greater reliance on paper bags. Contrary to the popular belief that paper bags are more eco-friendly, they actually require more energy to manufacture and cause more pollution during production. This probably explains why Penang and Selangor did not compel or encourage retailers to replace plastic with paper bags.

Convincing the public

Asking consumers to sacrifice requires some doing, especially when Malaysians are so used to free plastic bags that some consumers mistake it as a “right”. Some consumer associations, for example, claimed that the 20 sen charge was decided without their consultation and was therefore unfair.

Perhaps as a public relations measure to help consumers make the switch, Penang Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng announced that the state would use the funds collected from the plastic bag charges to eradicate hardcore poverty.

In Selangor, participating retailers are required to use the funds to conduct corporate social responsibility programmes. The Selangor government encourages these retailers to conduct programmes relating to the environment.

Perhaps one other way to compel consumers to change their lifestyle is to lead them to the Pacific Garbage Patch that stretches several hundred miles in the Pacific Ocean. The Pacific Garbage Patch is the largest of five plastic garbage patches in our oceans. For now, there is no way to clean up these garbage patches, scientists say.

As a result of our consumption and disposal of plastic, scientists estimate there are six times more plastic than plankton in the “continent”. Trapped by circulating ocean currents, the plastic we throw away are choking fishes and seabirds to death as the marine animals mistake them for food. Every year, more than 100,000 marine animals such as dolphins, whales and sea turtles are killed because of plastic bags.

Rubbish found on the beach in Kuantan (Pic by Carolyn Lau and Ng Sek San)

Plastic waste found on the beach in Kuantan (Pic by Carolyn Lau and Ng Sek San)

If we don’t care about marine life, here’s another thought that should give us pause. Plastics absorb pollutants like polychlorinated biphenyls, otherwise known as cancer-causing PCBs, and pesticides.

“These particles are ingested by marine life and pass into our food chain. We all do it: we throw this stuff, this packaging, what I call dumb plastic, into the bin, and we think it has gone. But it comes back to us one way or another. Some of it ends up on our dinner plates,” British adventurer and environmentalist David de Rothschild tells The Guardian.

In 2009, Rothschild sailed to the patch in a vessel made entirely of plastics called Plastiki. The billionaire banking heir has definitely found a way to make the issue of plastic waste seem sexier.

Considering some of the gruesome facts surrounding plastic bags pollution, 20 sen per bag is a really small price to pay.

Other solutions

The Malaysian Plastic Manufacturers Association has proposed to the Penang government to give out free oxo-biodegradable plastic bags so that consumers can still enjoy free plastic bags on campaign days.

However, oxo-biodegradable plastic bags are not 100% degradable. They can only degrade in the presence of sunlight and oxygen. Those that end up in landfills would not degrade at all. Therefore, reusable bags are still the best option.

For certain, most of our plastic waste comes from packaging that is often unnecessary. Malaysian consumers cannot hope to rely solely on governments to resolve our plastic waste problem. After all, in a marketplace driven by profit, consumer demand and lifestyle are often much more powerful than government regulations.

As Leo Hickman writes in The Guardian on 11 Aug 2009: “[Plastic bags] are the ultimate symbol of our throwaway culture.”

No Plastic Bag Day campaigns are merely the first step towards stimulating the public to rethink the impact of our “use and throw” habit on the very environment that sustains us.

Gan Pei Ling believes reusable bags are the best solution to our plastic bag dilemma, but would like to remind readers to wash their reusable bags frequently in the interest of hygiene.

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9 Responses to “The plastic menace”

  1. Sean says:

    One of the highlights of a recent trip to Penang for me was the fantastic Laksa near the T-junction below Kek Lok Si temple. What really made it a genuine treat was sitting on stainless-steel and wrought-iron stools by similarly-constructed tables, and eating out of a ceramic bowl with a stainless-steel spoon. I get the argument about capital cost, I really do – but every time I eat somewhere where I have to sit on and at disposable furniture and use disposable containers and utensils, I have to wonder if the same level of investment and pride has gone into the ingredients and cooking. At the same time, I haven’t yet taken my own containers to da bao my favourite local nasi ayam. Perhaps that’s where I could do my part.

    The UK has some legislation obliging companies of a certain size to play a part in disposing of packaging (easier to keep track of the big ones, I guess) – is there something similar here?

    Just in case the David de Rothschild mention wasn’t sufficiently moist, here are some photos from David de Rothschild’s Plastiki adventure to keep the juices flowing.

  2. farha says:

    On no plastic bag days, I see very few people using reusable bags. Some people pay for the plastic bags, while some others even bring their own plastic bags – I mean, they use new ones from packs they buy on their own somewhere else, not the ones already used (which defeats the purpose entirely, I must say). Things like these takes time….most people are so used to the convenience of giveaway plastic bags , bringing their own bags/bottles/tupperwares is such a big task.

  3. Rafizah says:

    Maybe we could appeal to the Malaysian love for discounts? For example, my favourite department store in Bangkok had a campaign during their sales period that only allowed you to enjoy discounts if you used reusable bags. If you didn’t bring a bag, they sold big colourful ones that fit at least three boxes of shoes (I know this from experience!) at only RM3 each. So if you wanted a free plastic bag to put your shopping in, you wouldn’t get the 30-50% discount off their products, which is a lot to miss out on!

  4. neptunian says:

    It’s well and fine to say “do not use free plastic shopping bag”, but did the writer stop to think about the progression of [what happens after you go shopping?] Let’s paint a scenario with a piece of chicken bought from a supermarket:

    Bought a chicken and a couple of bags of veggies for dinner. Used my reusable eco-friendly bag to take them home. Took out the stuff to make dinner. Cut them up and the leftover bits were thrown into the waste bin. Oh, wait a minute, do not have a liner for the bin! Got to have one, otherwise it will drip and stink. Now where did I put the PLASTIC LINER that I BOUGHT? Damn, should have taken the free plastic shopping bag.

    Cooked dinner, ate and was happy. Have some leftover food as well. Not going to eat that, so into the PLASTIC LINED bin it goes.

    Have to tie up the liner bag and take it out for the garbage collectors, otherwise the food will rot and be a health hazard. Didn’t actually throw enough rubbish to fill up the bin. The liner bag is only a quarter full! Oh well, can’t afford to leave the food stuff in the bag for a few days, can I?!

    Hmmm, bought a PLASTIC LINER, oversized and used once; didn’t even fill it, and now it goes to the landfill. Should have taken the free plastic shopping bag. At least the bag would have been used twice and just big enough for the leftovers!

  5. Tan says:

    I think the “No Plastic Bag” campaign should be extended to all retail stores as saving the environment is everybody’s responsibility. Many event and seminar organisers already started giving out reusable bags free to participants months ago. So what the government needs is more vigorous campaigns and forums to inculcate the young on the need to save the earth by going green. The education ministry should also be brought in to educate school-going children; perhaps Fifth Formers could be sent to polluted areas to do a clean up. First-hand experiences will always last a lifetime.

  6. Jack says:

    Oxo-biodegradable bags do not need sunlight in order to degrade – they just need oxygen.

    They address the problem caused by plastic waste that accidentally or deliberately gets into the open environment, where it could lie or float around for decades. For a video of d2w plastic degrading see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i3TGqcpWJTM

    Oxo technology causes ordinary plastic to convert at the end of its useful life into a material with an entirely different molecular structure. At that stage it is no longer a plastic, and has become a material which can be bio-assimilated in the environment in the same way as a leaf.

    Oxobio plastic is not intended for landfills, because if a bag has been collected and sent to a landfill, it has already been disposed of responsibly. It is not desirable for anything to degrade in landfills because landfills need stability and don’t need methane.

    Don’t put plastic in landfills anyway. Recycle it, or capture the energy in a modern incinerator that does not cause pollution.

  7. Laugoo says:

    To be sincere in reducing plastic usage, the govt. should revamp the garbage disposal system first. Try throwing out your rubbish without packing them in plastic bags and see what happens. The no plastic day should also apply to the garbage disposal agencies.

  8. TC Ang says:

    Dear Author,
    The only reason green energy and buildings are more popular is because profits can be made from building a wind farm with oil prices at their current and forecast levels.

    Saving the planet cannot be completed in “10 easy steps” or only take up “just 20 minutes a day”. Neither can the planet be saved by attending a “save the earth” gala ball. It requires the average person to actually think and act about this constantly.

    Let’s face it, most of us would not give up our current consumption habits for the benefit of the earth. Its going to take a drastic event as an incentive for the average person to change. Something like the movie “2012”, I’ll bet we would use less plastic bags after that.

  9. q says:

    *Sigh* Sometimes I think all this chatter gets a bit tiresome.

    I don’t think many people living in Malaysia have the mindset of living sustainably – and that includes taking care of their waste disposal. [They think], come on, just leave all these things to the government.

    I have this idea (and my elder sister has always done this back in our hometown): Come fasting month, there will be Ramadan bazaars in practically every neighbourhood around the country, every day. [Many people go] to these bazaars regardless if [they] are fasting or not. Can you imagine the amount of food packaging and garbage after each day? So let’s suggest and encourage everyone to bring their own containers and/or tiffin carriers from home to pack their food in.

    Good start? Wait, I’ll go and make a Facebook page for this, yea ;)


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