Make ban on single-use plastics work

OUR Minister of Housing and Local Government Datuk Zuraida Kamaruddin and Penang Chief Minister Chow Kon Yeow's proposal to ban single-use plastic packaging for environmental reasons is a welcome move.

We have seen both within Malaysia and abroad that voluntary plastic bag reduction campaigns have not worked. Trying to engender voluntary change often means investing a lot of money into public education and outreach efforts for very low success rates. Statistics have shown that awareness does not always translate into a shift in consumer behaviour, even in developed nations such as the US and Australia. For plastic waste reduction strategies to work, public education campaigns must be held together with plastic packaging bans. Behavioural change will take place only when a binding policy with a system of penalties and enforcement is in place.

It must be pointed out, however, that a nationwide ban on single-use plastic packaging can only begin to register positive results if the ban is extended to the retail sale of packaging and to fast food outlets, food courts, markets, hawkers, petty traders and businesses other than supermarkets and major retailers. Plastic bags, disposable plastic tableware and styrofoam and plastic food packaging can still be purchased from supermarkets and retail stores. This defeats the purpose of banning free plastic bags and the sale of food in styrofoam packaging if consumers can still purchase these items cheaply off supermarket or shop shelves.

In fact, one of the major complaints by consumers following the Selangor state government's ban on polystyrene food packaging and free plastic bags in 2017 is that the ban is a financial burden on consumers since they now have to pay for the plastic bags and packaging by buying them from shops rather than obtaining them for free with every purchase. From this complaint, it is clear that the move has not resulted in sufficient behavioural and attitude change and has only resulted in consumers purchasing more packaging instead of giving up or using less plastic packaging for environmental reasons. To wean the nation off single-use plastics, we need to remove the option of being able to purchase single-use plastics cheaply and conveniently.

If the protection of wildlife and the natural environment is our objective in reducing plastic waste, then this policy must necessarily extend beyond plastic bags and also cover other single-use plastics including all styrofoam products, plastic drinking straws, plastic cup lids, plastic meat and produce trays, clingfilm, plastic cotton buds, disposable cutlery, food takeaway packaging and other environmentally harmful products such as plastic glitter and toiletries containing microbeads. Oxo-degradable plastic bags that are not truly compostable and biodegradable and non-woven shopping bags should also be banned, as they disintegrate into toxic petro-polymers and should not therefore be marketed or used as alternatives to conventional plastic bags. As long as these items are not included in the ban, it will be very difficult to mitigate the environmental damage caused by plastic bags.

To resolve the issue of consumers claiming that they now need to purchase rubbish bags since retailers are no longer giving out free plastic bags, we can introduce a policy allowing only the distribution of plastic bags above 20 micron (0.02 mm) in thickness and with a minimum capacity of 10 litres, the cost of which will be borne by consumers to increase the chances that these plastic bags are reused for storage and waste disposal, and are only purchased if necessary. Over time, conventional plastic bags and rubbish bags, including pet waste bags, should be phased out and banned and replaced with compostable bags that conform to compostability standards ASTM D6400 or EN 13432.

Retailers and manufacturers need to be given some time, for example, one year, to phase out the production, sale and distribution of single-use plastics. This will give both businesses and consumers time to make changes and source for alternatives. This will require regulations that will not only regulate the sale and distribution of plastic bags and other single-use plastics by retailers, but also regulations to stop fast food outlets and eateries from giving out plastic lids, straws and plastic cutlery for free, clinics and service providers to stop distributing medicine and other items in lightweight plastic bags, and food and beverage manufacturers to phase out excessive plastic packaging such as individually-wrapped biscuits and snack foods and 3-in-1 beverage sachets, which are convenience products and were not even common until the last decade or two.

Incentives must be created to not only allow but encourage consumers to buy items such as vegetables loose or using their own produce bags, and to phase out the practice of wrapping individual fruits, vegetables and other products in clingfilm and selling such products in trays covered in clingfilm. Styrofoam and soft plastic supermarket produce and food trays are generally not recyclable, and even those that are made of recyclable plastics are not recovered for recycling due to its low grade and the fact that once contaminated by food and grease, it is no longer accepted for recycling. As paper bags have a high carbon and water footprint despite being less harmful to wildlife and human health, they should be used only sparingly as an alternative to plastic bags, for example, its use should be restricted to the sale and serving of food, and not as grocery and shopping bags. Alternatives to single-use plastics can include either biodegradable and compostable trays and packaging, or higher-grade recyclable plastic containers with lids (to eliminate the need for clingfilm and shrink wrap) that are recovered for recycling through a container deposit and recycling buyback system.

Volunteers who participate in beach and jungle clean-ups in Malaysia will find that a lot of the litter consists of items with a purportedly high recycling value, such as aluminium cans and PET (polyethylene terephthalate) bottles. This would indicate that there are not enough financial incentives for recycling in Malaysia. To increase solid waste recycling rates and reduce littering, I would recommend introducing a container deposit legislation such as those in place in Norway, Germany and Sweden. To make the financial incentive for recycling higher, the deposit needs to be of significant value, for example, 20 to 50 sen per item. The consumers bear the cost of this deposit, which they can then recover by collecting and returning the items for recycling. This container deposit system should include aluminium, steel and unbroken glass containers, plastic bottles including shampoo and detergent bottles and plastic containers such as the ones recommended above to replace plastic supermarket and food trays. It is not necessary to have expensive automated reverse vending machines or door-to-door collection systems to implement this container deposit system. We can use existing recycling collection centres and buyback centres and existing infrastructure such as local council offices, schools, residents' association centres and community centres as recycling buyback centres.

To reduce littering in national parks and areas of ecological significance, entrance fees and hiking and camping permits should include an entry inspection system to charge hikers, campers and picnickers a deposit for each item in disposable packaging brought into the park, and refund the same only when these items are brought back for disposal upon exit.

Bans on lightweight plastic bags and single-use plastics are neither new nor revolutionary, and countries and cities that have implemented it report of positive consumer behavioural change and a reduction in littering. Since Denmark introduced a charge on plastic bags in 1993, the usage of plastic bags has been halved from 800 million bags to 400 million bags annually. The People's Republic of China reported a 66% drop in plastic bag usage since its ban on lightweight plastic bags. Ireland's plastic bag tax resulted in a 95% reduction in plastic bag litter. Kenya's ban on plastic bags, described as the World's Toughest Plastic Bag Ban, has shown such positive results within a year that neighbouring countries – Burundi, Tanzania, Uganda and South Sudan – are considering following suit. The European Union has also in May 2018 proposed a ban on plastic cotton buds, drink stirrers, drinking straws and balloon sticks to cut down on marine litter. Considering that bans and taxes on single-use plastics have been successfully implemented and upheld in both developed and developing nations and jurisdictions, there is no reason why it cannot be effective and similarly successful in Malaysia.

A reduction in plastic waste and litter is not only beneficial to wildlife and the natural environment. Governments and local authorities stand to gain economically from the reduced costs of cleaning up public spaces and processing waste in landfills. Less plastic litter would result in fewer clogged drains and, streams and fewer flash floods. There would be fewer breeding grounds for mosquitoes, rats and other disease vectors if there were less litter and fewer landfills. Governments and local businesses would benefit from increased tourism opportunities when recreational areas and tourist destinations are cleaner and free from litter. Clearly a ban on single-use plastics will require minor adjustments and behavioural change on the part of Malaysians, but the long-term benefits to the environment, society and the economy will outweigh any initial inconvenience.

Comment: letters@thesundaily.com