Practise recycling plastic waste

Posted on December 7, 2010. Filed under: Waste |

-The Star- Using fewer plastic bags is great. But let’s not stop there.

PLASTIC bags. We obviously use too many of them. Just look into a drain, any drain, and you will see why a war is being waged against these ubiquitous carriers.

Sure, overall, plastic bags form just a tiny fraction of all that we throw out. But that bit is enough to exert an environmental toll. They are filling landfills, littering roadsides and coastlines, clogging drains and waterways, and choking birds and sea creatures that accidentally ingest them.

The Malaysian Plastic Manufacturers Association (MPMA) maintains that bags are not the problem. Littering is. It says instead of a ban – which jeopardises the robust industry – we should simply practise the 3Rs: reduce, reuse and recycle. The first two Rs have been somewhat addressed through the No Plastic Bag Day campaign and Penang’s impending ban. It is the final R that is a poser. To date, the industry has done little to promote that R, save for some ad hoc campaigns lasting a few weeks. It has yet to implement a permanent collection and recycling scheme for plastic wastes. So while plastic bags can be recycled, less than 1% are. Which is why we have this bout of bag blues.

Bagful of woes: Penang might banish plastic bags, and Selangor intends to have more plastic-bag-free days, but there is still plenty of plastic bags given out in wet markets. – Pics by Yap Chee Hong / The Star

I can see why Penang has opted to banish plastic bags from January and why Selangor plans to have more No Plastic Bag Day in a week. So far, campaigns held to wean shoppers off the polluting carriers have not been entirely successful. I see people bagging their groceries in reusable totes only during plastic-bag-free days. On normal days, shopping carts are still laden with a dozen or more plastic bags.

Some shoppers, caught with no reusables, carry their purchases in those thin-film plastics meant for bagging vegetables for weighing. Once, at a store in Petaling Jaya, Selangor, a lady behind me at the cashier asked: “Why you bring your own bag ah? It’s not Saturday today.” Clearly, the message of shopping with reusable bags every day has not caught on.

Judging from letters written to newspapers, what consumers fear most from the ban is a shortage of plastic bags for their trash, and they would have to buy garbage bags. It is a misplaced fear. Penang is not going to run out of plastic bags. Not when many shops have escaped the clout of the ban. Hawkers and small stores, for instance, can still give out bags. But seriously, to hold your trash, any bag would do: the bread bag, vegetable bag, toilet paper rolls bag, flour bag, teh tarik bag …

By zeroing in on T-shirt plastic bags, we’ve overlooked the problem posed by other plastic packaging – in particular those small bags used to pack drinks and kuih. Shouldn’t we reduce their usage too?

These are too small, you say? That simply means you are not separating your trash for recycling. If you put aside all those plastic and paper packaging waste, glass bottles, aluminium and tin cans and Tetrapak cartons, there really is little left to throw out. And if you go one step further and dump your kitchen waste into a compost heap, you’re left with even less. So, even a teh tarik plastic bag should suffice as a garbage bag. (By the way, you do not need a huge garden to do composting. Some composting methods require only a bin or shopping basket that can easily fit into the confined spaces of an apartment.)

In fact, those supermarket T-shirt bags, usually made of virgin plastic polymer, should be recycled and not end up in the dump. And they should not be the one getting all the attention. A nastier, but overlooked, problem is that posed by those plastics used to pack your curry puffs or teh tarik, and the thin-film bags which they come in. Small and flimsy, these are almost impossible to retrieve for recycling when compared with the bigger and thicker supermarket carriers.

If there is anything we should ban, it is those kinds of plastic bags. It is also ironic that supermarkets, while discouraging plastic bags, are not cutting down on other packaging plastics. We certainly do not need bunches of vegetables wrapped in plastic or cling film.

Much ado about a bag

Trimming our plastic bag usage is a must but it should not top our priorities list. After all, these bags are just a small part of the sustainability equation. The MPMA says only 4% of the world’s crude oil is used to manufacture plastic products, whereas 45% goes to transportation fuel and 42% to production of energy. So there are other more crucial means to shrink our carbon footprints.

Our aversion towards plastic bags has also turned the reusable tote into an icon of green living. Ask anyone how they are greening their lifestyle and inevitably the reply is: “I bring my own bag when shopping”. The truth of the matter is, the impact of reusable bags on our ecological footprint is negligible compared to other green acts such as saving electricity, driving less, going meat-free and cutting down needless purchases.

People and companies focus so much on reusable bags because it is easy to do and involves no major sacrifices.

During Earth Day and World Environment Day, many retailers proudly proclaim that they are doing their bit for the environment by giving shoppers reusable bags (often only after a certain amount of purchase!) when in fact, they should be giving us safe and healthy products. These bags risk ending up as mere token green gestures, while people continue to live out wasteful lives.

And if one cares to calculate, the life cycle toll of these bags might be high since so many are made (hence, eating up resources and energy) yet most lie forgotten in drawers or car booths. And most are not durable, being made of flimsy woven plastic fibre which will not last 10 trips to the store. All these eventually translate to a bigger ecological footprint for the bags.

No, I’m not saying that we should skip the reusable bags. We should continue toting them, just like we should continue waging war on unnecessary plastic bags. But at the same time, let’s not forget the other more important green acts.

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