Monday, 27 August 2018

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

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. 

 WONG EE LYNN 
COORDINATOR, 
GREEN LIVING SPECIAL INTEREST GROUP, 
MALAYSIAN NATURE SOCIETY

Tuesday, 31 July 2018

Letter to the Editor: Reconsider Construction of PIL1 Highway

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. 

WONG EE LYNN 
COORDINATOR, 
GREEN LIVING SPECIAL INTEREST GROUP, 
MALAYSIAN NATURE SOCIETY

Sunday, 1 July 2018

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

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. 

WONG EE LYNN 
COORDINATOR, 
GREEN LIVING SPECIAL INTEREST GROUP, 
 MALAYSIAN NATURE SOCIETY

Wednesday, 16 May 2018

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

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.
 
  WONG EE LYNN
COORDINATOR,
GREEN LIVING SPECIAL INTEREST GROUP,
MALAYSIAN NATURE SOCIETY

Wednesday, 18 April 2018

Letter To The Editor: Make Environment A Priority, Not An Afterthought

LETTER TO THE EDITOR
MAKE ENVIRONMENT A PRIORITY, NOT AN AFTERTHOUGHT
 
It is heartening to know that 69% of Malaysian voters consider environmental protection to be one of the factors that will influence the way they will vote in the upcoming General Elections (The Star, Sun 15 March 2018).
 
For far too long, sustainability and environmental conservation have been put on the backburner or seen as something ideal but inessential. In recent years, the destruction and human suffering caused by the East Coast floods, the 2014 droughts which led to water rationing in Selangor, the pollution of water sources in Cameron Highlands, reduced fish bycatch, the clearing of more land and forest for highway and infrastructure construction, the recurring haze, wildlife deaths and the economic uncertainty arising from the European Parliament’s proposed ban on palm oil biodiesel from Malaysia for environmental reasons have all played a role in raising public awareness on the interconnectedness of human and environmental well-being.
 
Having perused the election manifestos of both political coalitions, however, I am of the opinion that more specific, effective and convincing pledges need to be made. As we are all aware, the actions of legislators and governmental decision-makers are often inconsistent with their pledges. Some of these inconsistencies are pointed out below:
 
ON CLIMATE MITIGATION
 
Both coalitions pledge to take action to reduce carbon emissions by way of measures such as cleaner diesel and petrol and increasing the development and use of renewable energy.
 
Yet at the same time Barisan Nasional’s pledges to accelerate the growth of the oil and gas industries, its Forest Economy Policy which focus is on income generation and not conservation and its proposals to construct more roads and highways effectively efface any good that its plans to introduce electric buses, switch to LED lights and create urban parks and recreational areas could potentially create.
 
Pakatan Harapan has pledged to promote the development and use of green technology and renewable energy and halt Barisan Nasional’s plans to construct a nuclear power plant, but at the same time plans to reintroduce petroleum subsidies and construct more roads and highways.
 
Both coalitions should instead focus on policies to reduce reliance on private vehicle ownership and driving, by establishing reliable and affordable non-fossil fuel powered public transport systems, creating incentives for telecommuting and upgrading existing road and rail infrastructure instead of opening up more land for highways and roads.
 
ON DEFORESTATION
 
Both coalitions pledged to curtail illegal logging and manage forests and forest resources sustainably, despite their existing history of doing the exact opposite.
 
Barisan Nasional had authorized logging and forest clearing in Ulu Muda, Merapoh and Terenggun, among others, despite knowing the importance of the ecosystem services provided by these forest reserves.
 
Similarly, Pakatan Harapan in its previous election manifesto had pledged to gazette and conserve forests and halt illegal logging, but went on to degazette parts of the Selangor State Park for the construction of the East Klang Valley Expressway (EKVE), and this action makes voters now wary about their lofty promises to halt deforestation.
 
Both coalitions pledged to preserve biodiversity and wildlife populations, yet under their watch, the construction of yet more highways and roads has opened up access to wildlife for poachers and wildlife traffickers, and caused an alarming increase in wildlife roadkill. The rakyat needs to witness sincerity on the part of the political leaders in protecting forests, water catchment areas and environmentally sensitive areas. No amount of public relations exercises comprising the planting of trees in urban parks is able to reverse the adverse impact of rampant deforestation, fragmentation of wildlife habitats and the opening up of more land for infrastructure projects.
 
ON WASTE MANAGEMENT AND PLASTIC POLLUTION
 
Both coalitions promised to improve solid waste collection services and ease of recycling.
 
Yet Barisan Nasional proposed to reverse the ban on free plastic bags in Pakatan states, and has allowed the plastics manufacturing industry to be a powerful lobby.
 
In Pakatan states, the ban on free plastic bags has normalized waste reduction practices and encouraged consumer environmental responsibility, but the replacement of styrofoam food packaging with other forms of plastic packaging that are neither biodegradable nor collected and recovered for recycling has cancelled some of the benefits of the plastic bag and styrofoam ban.
 
According to a 2015 study published in Science journal, Malaysia is among the top 8 highest-offending ocean plastic polluters in the world. Malaysia is one of the 200 countries which signed the December 2017 UN resolution on microplastics and marine litter, but has to date not been seen to do anything constructive to reduce plastics production, consumption and disposal, although the Selangor State Government has been regularly cleaning up its beaches, which, while commendable, constitutes a treatment of the symptoms and not the cause.
 
Both coalitions need to create incentives for waste reduction and alternatives to plastics and other harmful and wasteful materials and industries. The environment cannot wait. Already human and animal health and food security have been adversely affected by plastics pollution and poor waste management practices.
 
Voters are becoming better informed, and will not stand for environmental tokenism by either political coalition. It cannot be the job of concerned citizens, non-governmental organisations and volunteers alone to protect and speak up for Malaysia’s natural environment and resources.
 
Malaysia stands to gain more economic benefits and ecosystem services from keeping its forests, mangroves and other environmentally-sensitive areas intact and biologically diverse, than from issuing permits for logging, mining and road construction. The time to act for the environment is now. Environmental conservation should be each political coalition’s main consideration in all its policies and decisions, and not an afterthought.
 
WONG EE LYNN COORDINATOR,
GREEN LIVING SPECIAL INTEREST GROUP,
MALAYSIAN NATURE SOCIETY

Thursday, 1 February 2018

Letter to the Editor: Oxo-degradable Plastic Bags Not Better For Environment

LETTER TO THE EDITOR:
OXO-DEGRADABLE PLASTIC BAGS NOT BETTER FOR ENVIRONMENT
 
While I applaud Sibu Municipal Council’s efforts to reduce plastic pollution by banning non-biodegradable plastic bags (‘Sibu’s Tough Stand Against Plastic’, The Star, 22 Jan 2018), its proposal to replace conventional plastic bags with purportedly ‘biodegradable’ plastic bags poses fresh environmental problems.
 
The plastic pollution reduction regulations and policies currently in place in Malaysia seem to mostly encourage the replacement of conventional plastic bags with paper bags, purportedly ‘biodegradable’ plastic bags and cheap non-woven shopping bags. In addition, styrofoam food packaging is merely replaced with other types of non-foam plastic food packaging, and so far there does not appear to be any organised or official effort to recover, collect and clean these types of plastic packaging for recycling. None of these items introduced to replace conventional plastic and styrofoam products are actual alternatives, as they are unsustainable and do not reduce waste.
 
Most commercially-available and inexpensive ‘biodegradable’ plastic bags are still plastic and fossil fuel-based. Only bags that conform to compostability standards ASTM D6400 or EN 13432 are truly biodegradable.
 
Oxo-degradable, oxo-biodegradable, oxy-degradable, oxy-biodegradable and degradable plastic bags are all merely names for plastic bags with a chemical additive. This chemical additive, usually metal salts (which may include cobalt depending on the manufacturer), breaks the plastic molecular ties and catalyses the disintegration of the plastic. Over time, these bags break down into smaller, more toxic petro-polymers, which eventually contaminate our soil and water, and enter the animal and human food chain. Therefore, although these purportedly ‘greener’ plastic bags break down into fragments in landfills and waterways, they contribute to microplastic pollution, posing a risk to marine and other ecosystems.
 
In fact, over 150 environmental organisations, non-profit organisations, research and scientific institutions and public bodies have recently called for a ban on oxo-degradable plastics. Oxo-degradable plastics are also increasingly facing opposition in Europe, and the United Nations Environment Programme’s chief scientist Prof. Jacqueline McGlade confirmed that a lot of plastics labelled biodegradable never fully break down and thus contribute to plastic pollution. Further, because these oxo-degradable plastics have a chemical additive, they cannot be safely recycled and can end up contaminating other types of plastics in recycling facilities.
 
As for paper bags, although they are truly biodegradable as long as they do not have a plastic coating, plastic-based glue or laminate, they do have a high environmental cost, as they require more water and energy to produce compared to plastic bags. However, as they are less harmful to wildlife and less toxic to human health once discarded, they can be safely used as food packaging. Still, replacing plastic bags with paper bags does not reduce waste, as paper bags are typically single-use due to their low durability, and cannot be recycled once wet or contaminated with food, grease and dirt. Considering the high water and energy use and low durability of paper packaging, the use of paper bags should be restricted to the sale and serving of food, and not as grocery bags and shopping carrier bags, and consumers should still be charged a fee for paper bags and paper-based food packaging to reduce reliance on single-use packaging and to encourage behavioural change, in that consumers would be more motivated to save money by bringing their own reusable food and beverage containers and shopping bags.
 
The other unsustainable item frequently marketed as a sustainable alternative to plastic bags are non-woven shopping bags, referred to erroneously as ‘recycle bags’ although this is grammatically and factually inaccurate, since they are neither made of recycled material, nor are they recyclable. Non-woven shopping bags are those inexpensive lightweight bags that look and feel like fabric and are usually given out as goodie bags at events or sold at supermarket checkout lanes. They are made of polypropylene and are therefore also plastic despite their resemblance to cotton or fabric. These should be avoided as they are not durable, typically contain lead, break down into plastic fibres easily thus contributing to microplastic pollution, and cannot be repaired, recycled or composted.
 
Malaysia is one of the 193 countries which signed a UN resolution in December 2017 to eliminate marine plastic pollution. There is no way we can fulfil this pledge if we continue to replace one type of plastic with another type of plastic or with other single-use packaging with a high carbon and water footprint, or increase microplastics in our oceans by increasing the demand for and use of oxo-degradable plastic.
 
To truly reduce plastic pollution, we need to reduce waste and change our mindset in relation to disposable and single-use items, which may be convenient for us but not convenient for the environment. The solution to the problem of plastic pollution and waste should incorporate the banning of small, lightweight plastic bags, the distribution only of larger, thicker plastic bags for a small fee for rubbish disposal and the subsequent proper collection and disposal of such rubbish in sanitary landfills, the elimination of ‘greenwashing’ alternatives such as non-woven polypropylene bags and oxo-degradable plastic bags, and the implementation of incentives such as rebates, shopping reward points and express checkout counters.
 
Long-term solutions can subsequently be introduced to include practical initiatives to encourage and increase recycling and composting to reduce household and industrial waste and correspondingly reduce the need for rubbish bags. There must be incentives and laws in place to make it easier for homes and businesses to dispose of waste without the need for rubbish bags, and for food and consumer goods to be sold without the need for plastic wrap and other packaging.
 
Scientific and technological solutions to reduce waste and replace conventional plastic packaging are being developed every day, and we have a choice between the most cutting-edge solutions such as plant-based, edible packaging, and traditional zero-cost, zero-waste options such as bringing our own baskets, cloth bags and food containers with us to the shops. It is not choices or solutions that we lack, but the political and individual will to do the right and responsible thing.
 
WONG EE LYNN
COORDINATOR,
GREEN LIVING SPECIAL INTEREST GROUP,
MALAYSIAN NATURE SOCIETY

Thursday, 18 January 2018

Letter to the Editor: Death of Rare Birds Exposes Horrors of Exotic Pet Trade

LETTER TO THE EDITOR:
DEATH OF RARE BIRDS EXPOSES HORRORS OF EXOTIC PET TRADE
 
(Photo credits: The Star Online)
 
The tragic, senseless and deliberate drowning of 300 rare birds by wildlife traffickers when pursued by the authorities (Wed, 17 Jan 2018) evinces the cruel and destructive nature of the exotic pet trade.
 
The birds were drowned because they were merely merchandise and not sentient living beings to the traffickers, and when pursued, the birds became a liability and possible evidence in the event of arrest.
 
Birds are especially vulnerable to poaching and trafficking because of their abiding popularity as pets. Birds, especially parrots, are sedated and have their beaks cut or taped up, legs bound and wings clipped or tied by wildlife traffickers. The Animal Law Coalition reports that 60 percent of wild-caught birds do not survive to reach their destinations. Most die of shock, stress, illness and injury during capture, transportation, transit and captivity.
 
  Readers who expressed sorrow at the needless deaths of the birds must realise that such incidents are not uncommon, and Malaysia is not merely a stopover for wildlife traffickers who are non-Malaysian citizens.
 
Malaysia is known to be a hub for wildlife trafficking and the illegal wildlife trade despite the existence of the Wildlife Conservation Act 2010 and Animal Welfare Act 2015. There are very few regulations in place making it difficult for people to purchase, acquire, or keep exotic animals, especially when proper licenses have been obtained.
 
Environmental organisations including TRAFFIC and the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) confirm the existence of a flourishing trade in live animals and endangered species in Malaysia, and social media is a virtual wildlife supermarket offering everything from Common Hill Mynas to trapdoor spiders and sun bear cubs.
 
The international wildlife trade involves a multi-million dollar organised crime network. The Wildlife Conservation Society reports that the wildlife trade, which is valued to be approximately US$8 billion annually, is surpassed in scale only by the illegal trade in drugs and arms. Government agencies are no match for wildlife poachers and traffickers. Corruption, porous borders, and a lack of resources and manpower make it difficult for many developing countries to stop the illegal wildlife trade.
 
Yet stamping out the wildlife trade cannot be the responsibility of governments and law enforcement agencies alone. It is not them who are driving up the demand for exotic pets, but consumers who treat exotic pets as status symbols, social media users who upload and share posts featuring captive wildlife and exotic pets, and tourists who pay money to have photo opportunities with exotic pets and drugged wildlife.
 
Many people who defend their ‘right’ to purchase and keep wild birds and other exotic pets hang on to the misguided belief that the animals are safer in their care now that rainforests and other wildlife habitats have been destroyed, or that there is virtually no difference between keeping wildlife and keeping dogs, cats and other domestic animals as companion animals.
 
However, we must remember that the wildlife trade is a major threat to biodiversity, ecosystems and even human health and safety. Birds, especially parrots, can spread parrot fever and pneumonia, especially through the inhalation of their dry droppings in a cage or aviary. Keeping wild animals indoors confined to small tanks, cages and enclosures, away from members of their own species, is neither educational nor compassionate. Many exotic pets often end up being released, surrendered to zoos, abandoned or unintentionally killed due to ignorance and neglect. Many exotic species advertised as ‘captive bred’ are actually poached from the wild, since DNA testing cannot reveal whether an animal was raised in captivity or in the wild.
 
If the report of the drowned birds had saddened us, then it must also move us into action. We cannot continue normalising the practice of poaching, abusing, exploiting and confining wildlife. We need to question if our purchases and choices destroy habitats and the ability of rural and indigenous communities to sustain themselves, thus driving them to poach wildlife for a living. We need to refrain from taking photos with wildlife, sharing wildlife selfies on social media, and allowing circuses and badly-kept zoos to profit from exploiting wildlife.
 
Nature-lovers who enjoy watching and photographing wildlife must take extra care not to disclose the location of endangered species and birds’ nests. We need to advise friends and family against purchasing or acquiring exotic pets, and persuade them to adopt from local animal shelters or to visit and support sanctuaries and rescue organisations instead. We need to avoid shopping at pet stores that sell exotic pets, and should lodge reports on the sales of wildlife to Perhilitan or wildlife conservation groups that can assist in investigating and acting on our reports. Those who intend to report wildlife crime must be vigilant and relay accurate information, such as the species, location, photographic and documentary evidence and contact information, to Perhilitan’s official website or through their Careline at 1300-80-10-10, or to the 24-hour NGO-run Wildlife Crime Hotline at 019 356 4194.
 
Birds in their natural habitat are not only beautiful to observe, but have an important ecological role to play. Birds pollinate plants, disperse seeds and keep insect and other disease vector populations down. The exotic pet trade is driving many wild bird species to extinction, and this can have a knock-on effect on other species and result in ecological imbalance. There has to be a worldwide import ban on the bird trade to stop bird species from being poached and trafficked to extinction, and at the same time, more needs to be done to reduce the domestic demand for keeping wild birds as pets as well. It would do well for us to think of the excruciating yet avoidable deaths of the drowned birds before we purchase birds as pets or upload a wildlife selfie.
 
WONG EE LYNN COORDINATOR,
GREEN LIVING SPECIAL INTEREST GROUP,
MALAYSIAN NATURE SOCIETY