By Joachim Ng
Saturday shoppers in Ipoh now have to pay 20 sen for a plastic bag as retail outlets implement the ‘No Plastic Bag’ campaign launched by the city council in support of the Federal Government’s 2025 target for banning its use. But unless the authorities, businesses, and non-governmental organisations act more boldly and creatively, the deadline is very unlikely to be met.
The Perak state executive council at its May discussion on the campaign was right in pinpointing the necessity to introduce a good alternative. Why does everyone use plastic bags? It is because they are light, cheap, waterproof, and convenient to carry around. There is need for an alternative to plastic bags that is just as or almost as light, waterproof, convenient, and cheap. Another big question: Has anything been done to raise public awareness and concern about the enormous threat to health and life from plastic bags?
Last year just hours before the 195-nation Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change started its meeting, United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres lamented: “We are sleepwalking to climate catastrophe.” We have conflicting information on the extent of climate sleepwalking in Malaysia. One survey last year found that despite extreme weather events, 61% of respondents said they either “know a little” or “have never heard” of climate change. But in another survey, also conducted last year, 80% of the respondents found climate change alarming.
Any street survey will indicate that Malaysians blame the scorching daily heat (it has gone above 36 degrees C in our cities) on climate change, but they have no idea how plastic use is connected to the extreme weather pattern. So they continue using plastic bags.
This is so evident in KL and Selangor that have long imposed the ‘20 sen per bag’ rule, and where the most frequent question that supermart and retail store cashiers ask a customer is: Do you want a bag? The most frequent answer is: Yes. Stallholders, too, certainly want to keep using plastic bags as they find them convenient and economical. And what happened to the campaign against plastic straws for drinks? Gone to sea.
How does our high usage of plastics contribute to climate change and deaths? The story is not told to the public. There is zero street publicity. None of the political parties have organised climate ceramahs to inspire their voters to embrace a sense of global community. Only the newspapers, particularly the English-language media, are regularly highlighting the climate threat but readership among young Malaysians is very low and literacy continues to decline.
How do you get people to drop the use of plastic bags if they don’t know that plastics threaten the ability of the global community to keep earth’s temperature from rising further? The lack of audiovisual publicity in frequented places dooms the ‘No Plastic Bag’ campaign.
It’s time we use teenagers as spearheads to drive change. During Ipoh Parade’s Cosplay Party on 12-13 June, youngsters donned stunning handmade attire. Taking a cue from its success, all that is required are sponsors for Plastic Boy and Plastic Girl uniforms made from chunks of plastic discards. Cosplayers can then be asked to dress as Plastic Boy and Plastic Girl to do walkabouts highlighting the grave threat from plastic pollution.
Along with these eye-catching walkabouts, NGOs must organise climate change displays in schools, colleges, shopping centres, houses of worship, food courts, eatery streets, sports arenas,
and recreational spots — all the most frequented areas. Also, the Government must pass a law requiring plastic bag distributors to stick on every bag the label: THIS PLASTIC BAG KILLS LIVES.
Malaysians love plastics. According to the Malaysian Plastic Manufacturers Association, the average Malaysian uses 300 plastic bags per year – totalling up to 9 billion bags. The vast majority of them are single use. Plastic trash gets washed into rivers that pour them into the ocean. In 2021, Sungai Klang was named the world’s second highest riverine emitter of plastic into the oceans. Last year, Malaysia ranked third place in the listing of countries polluting the oceans with the most amount of plastics. Only Philippines and India were ahead in 1st and 2nd placings.
The public must be told that heat-trapping gases are emitted throughout the plastic life cycle. Extraction, refining and manufacture of plastics are all carbon-intensive activities. The more plastics we make, the more fossil fuels we need, and the more we exacerbate climate change.
Plastics originate from fossil fuels, and the plastics industry accounts for about 6% of global oil consumption,) generating enormous quantities of heat-trapping gases. Only 9% of used plastics are properly disposed of. Discarded plastic waste generates heat-trapping gases when exposed to sunlight, emitting methane that has 33 times more global warming potential than carbon dioxide.
Besides the enervating daily heat created by plastics, are Malaysians told that the plastic bag is also a killer? Plastic discards in rivers and oceans break down into microplastics that are microcosmic pieces of plastic invisible to the naked eye. Dead turtles are frequently discovered with plastic objects stuck in their intestines blocking their digestive tracts and causing malnutrition.
A University of Nottingham research team studying Sungai Langat in Selangor found up to 150,000 pieces of microplastics sitting on the riverbed surface per sq metre. What animals live on beds of rivers and oceans? Crabs, prawns, and other shellfish that we enjoy eating. Equally alarming was that the researchers found microplastics in the bodies of almost every animal they collected including mussels, fish, and aquatic insects eaten by fish. The microplastics were found in the flesh of fish and not just the gills.
Oceanic studies have produced the same findings, on a larger scale. A California State University research team has found that on average one whale consumes 52,000 pieces of microplastics a day, 99% of which are already in the bodies of the fishes they eat. The fishes we consume — whether riverine or oceanic — are contaminated by microplastics.
The Sungai Langat research team also found concentrations of microplastics ranging from two to more than 80 pieces per litre of water. Sungai Langat is a source for water treatment plants and it plays a vital role in providing water for domestic, industrial, and agricultural purposes. This means that microplastics have entered human bodies by way of rice, vegetables, and fruits through farm water, and by way of tap water that we use for drinking and cooking.
The ‘No Plastic Bag’ campaign is of course a serious waste of effort if there is no alternative material. The best alternative is paper, but in Malaysia there is a strong anti-paper lobby that misinforms the public that paper is environmentally bad. A campaign to go paperless began some 20 years ago, with the appalling consequence that evidence supporting the use of paper as an environment-friendly material was ignored.
If not for the influential voice of the anti-paper lobby, Malaysia’s pulp and paper industry could have grown enough muscle to shove aside the plastic bag. Paper manufacture does not require us to chop down jungle trees such as merbau, cengal, and meranti. You only need to convert bush land, abandoned land, or unused land into pulp and paper plantations. In so doing, you are actually adding to the forest cover thereby expanding the carbon sink.
Instead, without paper promotion we saw the area of forest cover in our nation drop from 87% in 2010 to 54% in 2021. Paper is a protector of natural forests. Between 2005 and 2020, the paper industry was responsible for the growth of European forests by an area larger than Switzerland.
Eucalyptus, poplar, acacia, and bamboo — available in Malaysia — are fast maturing trees with high cellulose fibre content, the primary raw material needed to produce paper. As bamboo matures within 3-5 years, eucalyptus within 5-7 years, poplar within 5-10 years, and acacia in 6 years, they are suitable for paper plantations without in any way affecting the jungle. Malaysia also has pine trees, but they take more than 10 years to mature.
Paper bags are sustainable, biodegradable and recyclable, making them the natural choice to replace plastic. If Perak had gone big into paper plantations ten ago, every shopper in Malaysia would today be carrying a grocery paper bag embossed with the label: Made in Perak.
The recycling rate for paper and paper packaging is very high. In the European Union the recycling rate is 85% and 58% globally. By comparison, the plastics recycling rate globally is just 14%. Further to this, even if a paper bag is irresponsibly discarded, due to its natural biodegradable characteristics it will have a relatively low impact. On average, paper only takes around two to four weeks to decompose.
For diehards who need to see with their own eyes what plastic pollution is doing to living beings, fly to Hawaii and from there ride in a helicopter over the North Pacific Ocean. You are certain to spot a giant floating plastic island twice the size of Malaysia. Composed of plastic debris of all kinds that have meshed together, the North Pacific Ocean plastic island is home to thousands of sea creatures numbering 37 species.
The island resembles a living being as it is growing daily while at the same time shedding pieces that degenerate into microplastics. The sea creatures ingest these microplastics and pass them up the food chain, eventually ending up in human bodies. It is a death island that may drift closer to Southeast Asia with the currents.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Ipoh Echo