Malaysia: Has the ‘No free plastic bags’ ruling helped the environment?

WONG LI ZA The Star 6 Jun 17;

My car boot is half occupied with at least three reusable bags, two sets of tiffin carriers and an empty box.

The reusable bags are for weekend grocery shopping, the tiffin carriers for when I pack hot foods, while the box is for, well, “just in case”.

It has been over five months since (free) plastic bags and polystyrene food containers have been banned in Selangor and the Federal Territories.

Under the ruling (first implemented in January), plastic bags can only be dispensed for things like raw meat, plants (or roots covered in sand or soil like potatoes and ginger), and products like seafood. Otherwise, consumers are supposed to pay 20 sen for each plastic bag they require from stores.

The reason for the ruling was to reduce “everlasting trash” – plastic bags take 20 to 1,000 years to decompose in the environment, while polystyrene does not biodegrade under natural circumstances.

Coupled with the Malaysian habit of throwing rubbish everywhere, such bags and food containers have plagued our landscape and clogged our waterways, requiring much cost and manpower for clean ups. When they reach the sea, they break down into microplastic particles, which are then eaten by marine life – which we then eat!

The Malaysian Plastics Manufacturers Association estimates that the average Malaysian uses 300 plastic bags a year (almost one every day), bringing the total to nine billion bags (based on a population of 30 million).

Festive shopping

However, what impact has this ruling had on the environment? This is especially relevant with the upcoming Raya festivities, where there will be much more shopping involved.

Environment and Solid Waste Management specialist Dr Theng Lee Chong said that the impact has been rather minimal so far.

“Personally, I feel the impact on the environment is not very significant as a whole. People still rely on plastic bags, at least for trash, so that means they may have to buy rubbish bags which are larger and heavier,” explained Theng, who is also deputy chairman of the Association of Environmental Consultants and Companies of Malaysia.

“Nevertheless, from my observation, more people are bringing their own shopping bags nowadays compared to before. They are (sort of) forced to do it and also, it has become a habit,” he said.

“However, should we raise awareness by education or by force? People who bring shopping bags may still litter and use plastic bags whenever they are available for free,” added Theng.

Anthony Tan, executive director for the Centre for Environment, Technology and Development Malaysia (Cetdem), observed more shoppers bringing and using reusable shopping bags at supermarkets.

“I think people have grown to see the monetary benefit of carrying their own reusable bags or carriers. But unfortunately, I have also seen shoppers pull off 10 to 20 clear (free) plastic bags at the grocery sections (of supermarkets)!” said Tan.

Are paper bags a good alternative to plastic bags?

Theng noted that not all types of paper can be recycled.

“If people get it for free, they take it for granted and a wasteful attitude will contribute to more paper waste. Always bear in mind that paper is made from trees. And how many paper production (companies) have so called ‘reforestation’ policies?” said Theng.

Rethinking bags

Tan felt that there is a need to re-think the basic purpose of bags.

“Is it for single use, for dry goods or for wet produce? Is it to transport goods from payment counter to vehicle?” he asked.

“Maybe shoppers can adapt to using boxes in their vehicles to store the items until they get home.”

What then is a more effective way to reduce the use of non-degradable plastic bags and reduce its impact on the environment?

“Instead of reducing the use, I would rather focus on disposal. Only if plastic bag prices are high will people use it more wisely and segregate it for recycling. Almost all plastic bags can be recycled, just like your newspaper or aluminium cans (which have a ringgit value for recycling),” said Theng.

“Is banning plastic bags or polystyrene making Malaysia cleaner as a whole? From the waste management point of view, it is simply a tiny (part) of a (bigger) issue.

“We have over 160 landfills in the country. More than 90% of those are still open dumps with serious pollution issues. We still have so many unsolved problems in waste management,” said Theng.

Tan said that manufacturers have to innovate and find new eco-friendly alternatives for plastic bags.

The 20 sen story

Currently, many retailers use the 20 sen collected from sales of plastic bags towards green causes.

For leading retailer AEON, the money collected goes to the AEON Green Fund which supports the company’s environmental and corporate social responsibility activities.

Projects under the Green Fund include:

– Reforestation and rehabilitation of an orangutan sanctuary at North Ulu Segama, Lahad Datu, Sabah, in collaboration with WWF-Malaysia and Sabah Forestry Department

– Conservation work at Bidong Island, and a beach clean-up at Pantai Batu Burok (both in Terengganu)

– Tree planting activities at Bidor, Perak, and

– Special reusable shopping bags in collaboration with the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA).

It was also reported that retailer 99 Speedmart had contributed RM1mil to the Shah Alam City Council and Klang Municipal Council to clean up the Klang River.

The Giant chain of hypermarkets and supermarkets also uses the money collected from dispensing plastic bags for its “Sentuhan Hijau” (Green Touch) environmental campaign.

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