Housing and Local Government Minister Datuk Zuraida Kamaruddin’s 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, within Malaysia and abroad, that voluntary plastic bag reduction campaigns do not work. Trying to engender voluntary change often means investing a lot of money into public education and outreach efforts with very low success rates.
Statistics show that awareness does not always translate into a shift in consumer behaviour, even in developed nations such as the United States and Australia.
For plastic waste reduction strategies to work, public education campaigns must be held with plastic packaging bans. Behavioural change will take place only when a binding policy with a system of penalties and enforcement are in place.
A nationwide ban on single-use plastic packaging can only begin to register 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.
Currently, plastic bags, disposable plastic tableware and styrofoam and plastic food packaging can still be purchased from supermarkets and retail stores. This defeats the ban’s purpose if consumers can still buy them.
The policy ban must cover other single-use plastics, including styrofoam products, plastic drinking straws, plastic cup lids, plastic produce trays and clingfilm.
As long as these items are not included in the ban, it will be difficult to mitigate the environmental damage caused by plastics.
Retailers and manufacturers need to be given time to phase out the production, sale and distribution of single-use plastics. This will give businesses and consumers time to make changes and source for alternatives.
Alternatives to single-use plastics can include either biodegradable and compost-able trays and packaging, or higher-grade recyclable plastic containers with lids that are recovered for recycling through a container deposit and recycling buy-back system.
Bans on lightweight plastic bags and single-use plastics are not new, and countries that have implemented it report positive consumer behavioural change and a reduction in littering.
China reported a 66 per cent drop in plastic bag usage since its ban on lightweight plastic bags.
Ireland’s plastic bag tax resulted in a 95 per cent 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.
Considering such successes, Malaysia should consider following suit.
A reduction in plastic waste and litter is not only beneficial to wildlife and the natural environment, but governments and local authorities also 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 flash floods. There would also be fewer breeding grounds for mosquitoes and other disease vectors if there were less litter.
WONG EE LYNN
Coordinator, Green Living Special
Interest Group, Malaysian Nature Society