A plastic test of maturity

Posted on November 25, 2010. Filed under: Waste |

FEW Malaysians are aware that Hongkong now requires retail outlets to charge 50 cents (20 sen) for a plastic bag and in many places in the UK, consumers fork out at least 5 pence (25 sen) for one.

In several towns in India people have been told to use cloth bags for shopping. In 2004, the Indian Railways started promoting use of environmentally-friendly clay cups for drinks sold at stations to replace containers made of non-biodegradable plastic and polystyrene.

These are but a few examples of communities around the world that are moving fast to remove or reduce the scourge of plastic bags in their environments, and are making significant strides in changing the attitudes of people in taking for granted non-biodegradable materials.

Yet, in Malaysia, a state government’s move to ban free plastic bags (people can still have them for 20 sen each; the money goes to charity) has met with heavy opposition, not surprisingly enough, mostly from plastic manufacturers.

From January, Penang is imposing a complete ban on giving of free plastic bags at hypermarkets and supermarkets, with plans to extend the ruling to include smaller retail outlets and, very likely, even hawkers. It is a move the state has admitted will likely pose a political challenge, if it turns out to be unpopular.

And the plastic manufacturers are leading the charge in being stridently critical. As it is, the Selangor government and the federal authorities are also following suit to impose restrictions on plastic bags.

The manufacturers insist their productions have been hit following Penang’s “No Plastic Bag” campaign, which is now limited to three days a week. The state has already imposed a ban on polystyrene at government functions and municipal council food courts. It has also announced a ban on the use of polystyrene for all licensed eateries with enforcement to begin in January.

It is encouraging manufacturers and distributors to come up with biodegradable containers, like food-grade paper boxes and containers made of organic husks.

The Malaysian Plastic Manufacturers Association had as early as last year delivered a memorandum urging the state to reconsider the campaign. It maintained that plastic can be recycled with proper planning and implementation.

The manufacturers have since cited, among other things, studies that supposedly point to pollution rising in countries that have banned plastic bags. They insist that deaths of marine creatures from plastic, something that is widely publicised, are caused by the fishing industry which uses nylon nets and leaves behind plastic debris in the seas, and not by plastic bags.

To be fair, the manufacturers’ main concern is not environmental but economics. One can, however, empathise with the new business dilemma they now face.

Consider, for example, that almost 90% of plastic bag factories in the northern region cater for the local market. And on the average, they are now seeing production plummeting by 30% with a few being affected by as much as 75%.

But the state too has its concerns, which are not in the least bit unwarranted. Studies have shown that plastics make up 15%-17% of Penang’s wastes. Every year, plastic materials clog up public drains and canals causing flash floods during heavy rains.

The recycling rate for plastic, a highly non-biodegradable material, is 3%. And as many as 25.2 million plastic bags, or 2.5 million pieces a month, were given away in 2008 in six major groups of supermarkets and hypermarkets. If one were to add that sum to the millions of unaccounted for bags distributed by retailers, hawkers and other traders, the state faces a massive problem in waste management.

So this plastic dilemma precipitated by Penang’s ban will not test the government’s political will. It will, more importantly, be a test of the maturity of our people. It will show whether Malaysians can be as conscientious and educated in changing their habits as other communities around the world are doing.

Himanshu is theSun’s Penang bureau chief. Comments: letters@thesundaily.com

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