Friday, 23 November 2018

Letter to the Editor: No Development Should Take Place In Bukit Lagong Forest Reserve


It is with alarm that environmentalists and concerned citizens learned today of the proposed degazettement and development of parts of the Bukit Lagong Forest Reserve in Gombak. 

Bukit Lagong provides more than just recreational and ecotourism value to the Selangor State Government, residents and visitors. Forests such as the Bukit Lagong Forest Reserve provide multiple ecosystem services, such as carbon sequestration, flood protection, air quality improvement and water purification. Healthy trees absorb solar energy and release water vapour, thus regulating climate and temperature. Intact forests safeguard biodiversity, protect human health, and mitigate climate change. There is irrefutable data, including from various studies conducted by the World Bank, Wildlife Conservation Society, and Wetlands International, to support the assertion that forests are worth much more intact than when depleted, logged or converted into plantations. The economic returns of forest clearing for logging or development are short lived and can sustain only 1-2 generations at most. 

While the Selangor State Government’s action of calling for feedback and opening the proposed development for public inspection is an encouraging indication of greater transparency and participatory democracy, it must be emphasised that the opinion of the citizens, engineering professionals and the scientific and conservation community must also be taken into account, whether or not they have locus standi to object to the proposed development. Further, the feedback and objections from the public must be thoroughly considered, addressed and acted upon, not merely collected and then filed away to create the impression of civic participation. 

Any proposed development in an ecologically sensitive area with high conservation and high biodiversity value will adversely affect more than just people living in the immediate vicinity of the site. The clearing of forests for roads and construction will increase air and water pollution and the risk of soil erosion and landslides. The destruction of watershed areas will affect the entire state’s water supply and water quality. The opening up of access roads will create access not only for the construction vehicles, but also illegal loggers, poachers and wildlife traffickers. The construction of roads will fragment and bisect wildlife habitats, and the increase in traffic will result in wildlife deaths and wildlife-human conflict. The increase in motor vehicles and fossil fuel use in the area will contaminate the soil and groundwater with fuel runoffs. The clearing of trees will raise carbon dioxide emissions and reduce air quality. All these actions will affect more than just local residents. The damage to the environment will be irreversible, and yet those most severely affected by the destruction – namely, the trees and wildlife – have no suffrage and are unable to put in their written objections. 

The state government and developers have a duty of care not only to the local residents, but to all the living beings present and future who will foreseeably be harmed by the proposed development project. The well-being of the local human residents is interconnected with that of the local flora and fauna and even entities such as rivers and forests. 

The most preposterous thing about this proposed housing development project in Bukit Lagong is the fact that it is so patently wasteful and unnecessary. There is no shortage of viable housing development sites in Selangor. A study in June 2018 found that there are over 34,532 unsold completed residential units in Malaysia. Abandoned projects and lacklustre existing housing projects can be revived, improved and put back on the market. The advantage to reviving abandoned housing projects in urban and suburban areas is that there will often already be existing transportation, waste management and drainage infrastructure and systems, thus reducing the environmental and economic cost of providing housing. 

The proposed housing development project in Bukit Lagong is clearly not designed to meet the housing needs of the poorest and neediest, but to create an exclusive enclave for homebuyers who can afford the luxury of having a home in the heart of nature. The unfortunate cost of the privilege of living next to a forest reserve is that roads, sewage systems and waste management systems will have to be put in where there were none before, thus creating an additional burden on an already strained natural space. If the goals of proposed housing projects were to improve human quality of life, then such projects would be focused in urban areas close to amenities and infrastructures. The question of balancing environmental conservation and meeting human needs for adequate housing does not arise in this situation at all. 

The proposed Bukit Lagong development project must be immediately and irrevocably scrapped. It can benefit only an elite few but will harm a great many in the long run. I urge all concerned members of the public, whether or not you are residing in the vicinity of Bukit Lagong, to write in to the Director of the Selangor Forestry Department at Level 3, Bangunan Sultan Salahuddin Abdul Aziz Shah, 40660 Shah Alam, Selangor, to politely and firmly state your objections to this irresponsible and indefensible proposal to degazette and develop the Bukit Lagong Forest Reserve.


Thursday, 25 October 2018

Letter to the Editor: Hill Slope Development Comes With Many Environmental Risks


 The Bukit Kukus landslide tragedy is a grim reminder that hill slope development comes with many environmental and safety risks. Hill slope development causes erosion, habitat loss and air, water and noise pollution. It threatens wildlife, forests, water security, and soil integrity and stability. 

The Malaysian Cabinet had already drawn up a set of guidelines in 2009 prohibiting development on, inter alia, slopes exceeding 35 degrees, and slopes between 15-35 degrees showing signs of soil instability, erosion or other vulnerabilities. The Bukit Kukus tragedy involved an elevated road on a hill slope with a gradient reported to be 60-90 degrees. 

 The authorities are not unaware of the risks arising from, or the laws and guidelines in place in relation to, hill slope development. The guidelines include the National Slope Master Plan 2009 – 2023 issued by the Public Works Department, while the laws include the Land Conservation Act 1960, Environmental Quality Act 1974, Town and Country Planning Act 1976, and Street, Drainage and Building Act 1974. This clearly shows that there is no shortage of studies, guidelines, regulations and laws in Malaysia pertaining to hill slope development. What is lacking is the political will to enforce these laws and guidelines and to ensure the safety of people and the environment or the sustainability of the project. 

Blaming a massive landslide on rainy weather is irresponsible. Clearly the tragedy is not caused by merely rain and gravity, but corruption, apathy, irresponsibility and a willingness to cut corners and create wiggle room where there should be none. Intact land does not just spontaneously break off and descend on homes and roads when saturated with rainwater. If that were the case, then entire mountain ranges would be flattened annually during the monsoon season. 

Fatal landslides in Malaysia keep recurring because local and state authorities are willing to approve development projects on hill slopes, especially when given the assurance that mitigation measures, no matter how minimal and negligible, would be taken. However, no retaining wall or terrace can mitigate the adverse effects of deforestation, destruction of watershed areas, overdevelopment and mining, quarrying and construction activities near slopes. 

The Highland Towers collapse in 1993, Bukit Antarabangsa landslide in 2008, Hulu Langat landslide in 2011 and Tanjung Bungah landslide in 2017 all precede this latest incident, but decision-makers responded with words of regret and sympathy when strong policies and strict enforcement would have been more effective and would have prevented further tragedies. A prohibition on hill slope development on slopes exceeding a certain gradient should be treated as such, and not merely as a temporary freeze on hill slope development until public outrage simmers down. 

No development or construction activity should ever take place at a site in which the state and local authorities are unable to guarantee full compliance with safety guidelines or criteria. The profits to be gained from authorizing hill slope development work are paid for by construction workers and local residents with their safety and lives. Wildlife, rivers, forests and other natural entities pay the price with their existence. 

There must be a nationwide moratorium on all hill slope development. Existing projects must be reviewed, mitigation measures carried out and laws strictly and transparently enforced. The parties responsible for this fatal landslide must be held to account. Previously forested areas that had been cleared for hill slope development must be rehabilitated. The cost of hill slope development on the environment and communities is simply too high to be justified any longer. 


Wednesday, 26 September 2018

Letter to the Editor: Illegal Plastic Recycling Factories Highlight Need for Real Solutions


New Zealand news portal RadioNZ’s recent exposé of the illegal plastic recycling industry in Jenjarom and other plantation hinterlands in Malaysia to deal with plastic waste imported from New Zealand and the UK highlights the fact that most of the world, including developed nations with ostensibly clear waste management and recycling legislation, are ill-equipped to deal with plastic waste. 

 The irony of this fact (i.e. the import and processing of plastic waste in Malaysia) is not lost on environmentally-aware Malaysians who applauded Energy, Science, Technology, Environment and Climate Change Minister Yeo Bee Yin’s latest announcement on Sept 14 that Malaysia would be phasing out and eventually banning single-use plastics. All our efforts to reduce plastic waste and microplastic pollution would translate into very low environmental and health returns if plastic recyclers – mostly unlicensed and unregulated – are allowed to carry out operations and continue processing plastic waste that had entered Malaysia prior to the Minister’s Sept 1 announcement of a restriction on plastic waste imports. 

The plastics manufacturing industry tries to convince the public that littering, ignorance about recycling and lack of recycling facilities – and not the production of plastics per se – are the problem.  

But the real problem is that we are using a lot more plastics and generating a lot more waste as the world is becoming more industrialised. The World Economic Forum reports that we use 20 times as much plastics as we did 50 years ago. Businesses create more and more single-use plastics to meet consumers’ expectations for convenience, and most of these plastics can never be recycled. 

Plastic recycling is a labour-intensive process. Plastic waste has to be broken down, cleaned, separated by grade and made into pellets. This means that manufacturing plastic from scratch is always more economically rewarding than recycling plastics, even with subsidies and recycling-related legislation in place. Developed nations often believe that legislating and incentivizing recycling and collecting plastics for recycling is the same thing as ensuring that plastics are being properly recycled. What the general public often is not aware of is that developed nations take the easy option of exporting plastic waste to developing nations --- the very same developing nations whose rivers are identified as the source of 90% of marine plastics, the very same developing nations lacking sufficient infrastructure to manage their own plastic waste. 

It could take years for Britain, USA and European nations to increase their domestic recycling capacities. Even so, existing recycling technology isn’t good enough, largely because of limitations in how plastics can be sorted by chemical composition and cleaned of additives. Most plastics that are recycled are shredded and reprocessed into lower-value plastics, such as polyester carpet fibre. Only 2% are recycled into products of the same quality. 

In the meantime, more and more plastic products will continue to be produced, used and discarded, and many countries will resort to burning plastics for energy recovery or landfilling plastic waste. However, burning plastic creates harmful dioxins, and if incinerators are inefficient, these dioxins leak into the environment. Burning plastic for energy generation is also very carbon-intensive and contribute to increased carbon emissions. Burying plastic waste in landfills may appear to be safer but this is a really inefficient use of land, and studies have found that the degradation of plastic waste in oceans and landfills actually produce methane and ethylene, both potent greenhouse gases. 

The solution to the problem of plastic waste doesn’t lie in recycling more, or replacing plastics with other types of disposable packaging. Biodegradable packaging is linked to other environmental problems, which include increased carbon and methane emissions in landfills, deforestation, higher water and land use, and higher fuel use due to the fact that paper and plant fibre products weigh more than plastics. 

The solution to the problem of plastic waste lies not in setting up yet more licensed and legal plastic recycling plants in Malaysia and other developing nations, as there will always be unrecyclable and contaminated plastic waste and toxic byproducts to deal with. The solution does not lie in individual countries banning the import of plastic waste in order to protect their own population from reduced air quality and other environmental hazards, as there will be other developing nations and impoverished societies desperate enough to accept imports of plastic waste. 

The solution lies in creating a circular economy that does not rely on shipping materials across oceans to be reused, but keeps resources in use for as long as possible in the economic cycle. The solution to the problems of plastic waste lie in reducing dependency on all single-use and disposable items, creating more closed loop and low-waste systems, creating and sustaining a bigger market for reusables, and making zero waste stores and products available, accessible and affordable to all, not just to higher income, urban, educated and expatriate communities. 

The Malaysian Government is taking a step in the right direction by raising awareness, phasing out single-use plastics, enforcing laws against open burning, banning the import of plastic waste and regulating the plastics recycling industry. What we need now is for the Malaysian public to stop treating environmental issues as political or economic issues, and to instead understand that environmental and human health are interconnected. What we need now is to stop seeing the problem of plastic waste management as the fault of high-consuming, affluent developed nations, or the fault of developing nations with high corruption levels and flawed waste management systems – and to start seeing it as a shared responsibility. 


Monday, 27 August 2018

Letter to the Editor: ECRL Cancellation Financially and Environmentally the Right Move


 The Prime Minister’s decision to cancel the East Coast Rail Link (ECRL) and gas pipeline projects makes economic and environmental sense. For the sake of Malaysia’s natural environment, it is hoped that none of these projects would be revived even when it becomes financially viable to proceed with them at a later stage. 

 The ECRL, had the construction works proceeded, would have bisected the Rantau Panjang Forest Reserve (RPFR) into two separate forest areas. This would have effectively fragmented over 230 hectares of the RPFR, cut off any possible safe wildlife corridors and increased the risk of human-wildlife conflicts and wildlife deaths. 

 The plans for the proposed ECRL rail alignment also showed that it was to cut through a section of mangrove forest as it approached Port Klang. This would have grave consequences on the health of the mangrove ecosystem in the area, which as we all know, plays an important role in erosion prevention, flood mitigation, water quality regulation, and as nurseries for fish and other marine life. Not only that, the project would have also been detrimental to the livelihood, agricultural and fishing activities and water supply of the local coastal communities. The project is said to be capable of creating business and employment opportunities, but it is foreseeable that it would also affect the livelihood and quality of life of rural communities. It is hoped that all future infrastructure projects will take these factors into consideration before proposing activities that will alter the landscape of mangrove forests. 

 The ECRL project, had it proceeded, would affect up to 12 forest reserves, including the Central Forest Spine (CFS), 5 major rivers in Kelantan, 16 rivers in Terengganu, 5 rivers in Pahang and 1 river in Selangor. The environmental cost of the project is simply too high for a rail link that most Malaysians perceive to be an expensive convenience that may be nice to have but is inessential and unnecessary. 

 Although the ECRL project team and the previous Ministry of Natural Resources and the Environment had in 2017 attempted to reassure environmental organisations that the project would reduce forest loss and wildlife deaths through the use of an estimated 45 tunnels and 29 wildlife viaducts, it cannot be denied that wildlife populations, air and water quality and forested areas would still be adversely affected by the project, both during the construction process and after the completion of the project. Tunnels, fences and wildlife viaducts and crossings may not always provide a solution and may indeed create fresh problems for wildlife populations. Fences erected to prevent wildlife from encroaching onto railway tracks could further fragment habitats and limit a species’ natural range and breeding opportunities. A study conducted by wildlife researchers with the Department of Wildlife and National Parks (Perhilitan) from 2011-2013 on the effectiveness and usefulness of wildlife viaducts found that the viaducts studied were only effective crossing structures for only a few species, and that some species took a longer time to adapt to new crossing structures (Source: The Star, 22 Sept 2014). In the meantime, more wildlife lives would be lost to traffic and human-wildlife conflict, including hunting and illegal poaching. The same study also recorded the presence of hunters and campers at the viaducts, thus highlighting the fact that one cannot just construct a wildlife viaduct and expect it to mitigate wildlife deaths by the mere fact of its existence. Wildlife viaducts and crossings need constant maintenance and monitoring, and in spite of this may still not register the desired level of effectiveness. The best option is always to divert and realign any proposed infrastructures away from environmentally-sensitive areas. Opening up forested areas for road, highway and railway construction has almost invariably led to an increase in illegal logging, poaching, and hunting and the conversion of forests into land for human activity. 

 Now that the project has been cancelled and construction sites and cleared forests will be left behind, I support and commend Ketari assemblywoman Young Shefura Othman’s recommendation that the abandoned project sites be restored and replanted with trees without delay to prevent greater environmental damage, landslides, flash floods and the encroachment of poachers, loggers and illegal settlers. 

 The viability of all existing and future infrastructure projects should not merely be based on the availability of funds and the projected return on investment. It should always prioritise the environment and consider factors such as how it would affect ecologically sensitive areas, watersheds, hill slopes. wildlife and bird habitats, water and air quality, and rural and indigenous communities. Financial debts can be paid off over time, but environmental damage and biodiversity loss can be almost impossible to rectify. 


Tuesday, 31 July 2018

Letter to the Editor: Reconsider Construction of PIL1 Highway


The Penang State Government should consider all points of view before being defensive over the proposed Pan-Island Link 1 (PIL1) highway plans. Before the 14th General Elections, Pakatan Harapan had promised to review mega projects and re-evaluate the necessity, economic feasibility and benefits of highway and infrastructure projects. Concerned citizens have now highlighted the risks of increased air, water and soil pollution and increased traffic from the proposed PIL1 highway plans. To dismiss their concerns would be to dismiss the concepts of transparency, democracy and public participation that the Pakatan Harapan government claims to be committed to. 

Whether or not PIL1 will result in the decrease of property values or cut through Penang’s Youth Park is secondary to the undeniable fact that PIL1, and indeed, any highway construction project, will result in poorer water and air quality for residents, and possibly more dry spells due to reduced watershed areas, and more wildlife roadkills due to greater fragmentation of areas able to support animal and bird populations. 

The construction process itself will result in an increase in air and water pollution, waste generated and traffic congestion due to construction vehicles and traffic diversions. Road and highway projects do not benefit the lower-income and marginalized groups who cannot afford to own vehicles and use highways, and yet these are the groups most likely to be adversely affected by heavier traffic, noise pollution and poorer air quality. 

The argument that highways are necessary for the alleviation of traffic congestion is fallacious, and anyone involved in public planning and transport policies can attest to the fact that the construction of more roads and highways will only lead to the well-known and long-established effect known as “induced traffic”. 

Whenever a new road is built, more traffic will divert onto it, as more motorists would make the decision to make trips they would otherwise not make, and travel longer distances because of the presence of a new road. Commuters who would otherwise plan their trips and manage their time in order to carpool or take public transport would be persuaded to drive instead, as the existence of a new highway would persuade them that it would be more comfortable, convenient and time-saving to drive. Instead of planning their routes to avoid peak hour traffic, motorists would opt to drive on highways in the belief that it could accommodate more traffic and shorten their routes. 

The solutions to the problem of traffic congestion are to make better use of the state’s existing road and transport systems, improve public transport, reduce incentives for private vehicle usage, and improve road safety for public transport users, cyclists and pedestrians. Penang and indeed most of Peninsular Malaysia has the infrastructure for an efficient public transport system, but unfortunately not the political will or societal commitment to make public transport systems reliable, punctual, convenient, affordable and safe. Improving road safety and the public transport system will use less public funds, benefit a greater strata of society, have a lower environmental and carbon footprint and take less time to implement than constructing more highways and roads. 

Just as adding new roads and highways would not reduce traffic congestion, removing existing roads will not exacerbate the problem either. When Paris downsized and reduced roadways, motorists simply readjusted to the new system and up to 20% of commuters switched to public transport. When San Francisco removed the Central Freeway in 1989, motorists eased into using a smaller boulevard without difficulty. When Seoul shut down a highway and replaced it with a river, parkland and smaller roads, traffic situations did not change but air quality and city living conditions improved. The Penang State Government is not required to make a decision as radical as closing down existing roads. It would, however, be courageous and responsible for it to review and reconsider the necessity of PIL1. 


Sunday, 1 July 2018

Letter to the Editor: Making A Ban On Single-Use Plastics Work


 Our Minister of Housing and Local Government YB 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 USA 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. Currently, 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 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. 


Wednesday, 16 May 2018

Letter to the Editor: Reduce Waste and Consider the Environment During and After Election Campaigns

Now that the 2018 General Elections are over, I believe voters on both sides of the political divide can agree on one issue – that too much waste has been generated by both political coalitions during the campaign period. The sheer amount of waste generated and public funds and political donations expended in producing campaign materials and carrying out campaigns has an environmental and social impact.
I am of the opinion that the existing campaign spending cap of RM200,000 for each Parliamentary seat and RM100,000 for each State seat under the Election Offences Act 1954 is sufficient and should not be raised. We have seen for ourselves that an increasingly informed electorate is not swayed by handouts or the number of flags or banners, but has progressively relied more and more on social media, the internet and other independent sources of news to keep itself abreast of political news and developments. The funding of, and spending for, election campaigns are therefore not as necessary as we are led to believe it to be.
A draft Political Donations and Expenditure Bill to curtail corruption and money politics was presented to the Attorney-General in 2017 but was not tabled in Parliament before the 14th General Elections. There is now a pressing need to table and review this Bill in the interests of transparency and integrity.
Apart from the link between political donations, undue influence and corruption, as an environmentally-minded citizen, I am of the opinion that enforcing the election campaign spending cap, monitoring donations and having clear guidelines on election spending and campaigning will pressure political parties and their campaign teams to be more careful about how funds are used, and this may in turn result in less indiscriminate production and display of election campaign paraphernalia.
During the recent campaign period, the sheer volume and density of election posters and flags in some areas pose a hazard to road-users and citizens. Traffic lights and signs are obscured and pedestrians have to look out for falling makeshift billboards and flagpoles.
Restrictions on the number of physical campaign materials that each candidate is allowed to display in each area will force campaign teams to be more discerning and mindful as to what and how many materials to produce and where to affix them. It is not enough that political parties remove all campaign materials within 14 days after polling day. To demonstrate their commitment to the environment and prudent use of resources, political parties should endeavour to avoid generating excessive waste in the first place.
We currently have non-governmental organisations collecting used and discarded party banners for repurposing and ‘upcycling’ into tote bags, sleeping mats for the homeless and the like. While this is creative and commendable, it should not be the responsibility of NGOs to find ways to delay the journey of campaign materials to the landfill. It should be the responsibility of parties, candidates and their campaign teams to find ways to reduce the amount of waste going to landfills and the corresponding expenses of collecting and transporting the waste.
Guidelines can be drawn up to put pressure on candidates and their campaign teams to:
1. Reduce the amount of new campaign materials produced;
2. Avoid using campaign materials that are toxic, polluting or non-recyclable;
3. Produce more durable campaign materials (especially party flags, caps and t-shirts) that can be used over and over again;
4. Produce campaign materials that can be more easily composted, recycled or repurposed;
5. Avoid nailing campaign materials to trees or affixing campaign materials in environmentally-sensitive areas, such as near nature reserves and bird habitats;
6. Avoid producing, buying or using materials that pose a threat to wildlife, such as styrofoam, balloons, and firecrackers, and leaving exposed wires and trailing strings after affixing campaign materials, as these could harm pedestrians and animals;
7. Ensure that assemblies and ceramahs are held far from known bird and wildlife habitats such as urban parks and recreational forests, and reduce noise and light pollution during such events;
8. Avoid giving out flyers and handouts during election campaigns and assemblies; and
9. Provide campaign teams and agents with food and water that is not served in single-use disposable packaging.
The practice of providing food, gifts, goodie bags and promotional materials during campaigns should be eradicated completely as these not only create waste and litter but constitute money politics.
Although the General Elections typically take place only once every five years, it is absurd to justify wasteful and destructive practices on the basis that the elections do not occur very frequently. Election campaigns can and should be carried out with as little harm on the environment and community as possible. For political parties and candidates, remember that your work is a better testimony of your worth and better predictor of your election success than any billboard, poster or handout could ever be.