Tuesday, 10 January 2017

Letter to the Editor: Benefits of Plastic Bag Ban Far Outweigh Inconvenience


The Selangor State Government’s ban on polystyrene food packaging and free plastic bags has been in force for over a week, and so far the objections to the ban are as follows: 
(i) That having to buy reusable bags and containers or pay for plastic grocery bags is a financial burden on consumers; 
 (ii) That consumers end up having to buy plastic rubbish bags for waste disposal; 
(iii) That the ban will not reduce waste or pollution; and 
(iv) That plastic bags can be safely and cheaply recycled or incinerated and there is therefore no need to ban or restrict their use. 

In response to the above arguments, it is pointed out as follows: 

(i) Reusable cotton and canvas bags and washable food and beverage containers can last for years and over hundreds of uses. Therefore, investing in good quality reusable items is better for human and environmental health and makes economic sense in the long run. 

The only reason that ‘free-of-charge’ plastic bags and polystyrene packaging appear affordable to the average citizen is because they are not aware of the cradle-to-grave environmental and economic costs of plastic waste. 

Plastics Kill! 

The United States Environmental Protection Agency reports that between 550 billion and a trillion plastic bags are consumed worldwide each year and most of it end up in our oceans. 

Worldwatch Institute reports that at least 267 species of marine wildlife are known to have suffered or died from entanglement or ingestion of plastic marine debris. A European Commission study on the impact of litter on North Sea wildlife found that over 90% of the birds examined had plastic in their stomachs. 

If consumers had to bear the cost of rescuing and rehabilitating wildlife, mitigating and repairing damage caused by flash floods and clogged waterways and cleaning up plastic litter, plastic packaging would not be free or inexpensive at all. 

The reason states and nations have had to impose bans or taxes on disposable plastics is to encourage and expedite behaviour change, which would not take place on its own with sufficient effectiveness if we were to rely on voluntary plastic bag reductions. Governments, retailers and environmental organisations have spent millions on outreach and awareness campaigns with only minimal results. Education and awareness campaigns have little positive impact on an informed but apathetic population, and as such, different strategies are needed. Bans and fees for plastic bags are the catalyst for consumers to reduce their plastic bag usage. 

(ii) The most common argument of consumers who claim to ‘need’ free plastic bags is that they need the bags to dispose of household rubbish in, and would now have to pay for rubbish bags. However, most of the plastic bags given out by retailers and vendors are lightweight, single-use plastic bags that are almost never reused. 

To resolve this problem, the authorities should implement a policy allowing only the distribution of plastic bags above 20 micron (0.02 mm) in thickness and with a minimum capacity of 5 litres, and to charge consumers for it, to ensure that these plastic bags are reused for storage or waste disposal. 

Unfortunately, the regulations and policies currently in place seem to mostly encourage the replacement of plastic bags with paper bags, purportedly ‘biodegradable’ bags and cheap non-woven shopping bags. None of these are environmentally sustainable alternatives. 

Oxo-degradable, oxo-biodegradable, oxy-degradable, oxy-biodegradable, and degradable plastic bags are merely plastic bags with a chemical additive. This chemical additive breaks the plastic molecular ties and expedites 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. Only bags that conform to compostability standards ASTM D6400 or EN 13432 are truly biodegradable. 

Paper bags have a high carbon and water footprint, as more water and energy are used in the production of paper bags compared to plastic bags. However, as they are less harmful to wildlife and less toxic to human health, they can be safely used as food packaging. Considering their high water and energy use and low durability, the use of paper bags should be restricted to the sale and serving of food, and not as grocery bags and shopping carrier bags. 

 Non-woven polypropylene bag 

Non-woven shopping bags, referred to colloquially as ‘recycle bags’ although this is grammatically and factually inaccurate, are made of polypropylene and are therefore also plastic although they look and feel like fabric. These should be avoided as they are not durable, break down into plastic fibres easily, and cannot be repaired, recycled or composted. Further, tests by consumer groups found that a large percentage of these bags contain lead. 

It is thus reiterated that paper bags, non-woven reusable shopping bags and most brands of ‘biodegradable’ plastic bags do not reduce waste or harm to the environment. The solution to the problem of plastic pollution and waste reduction should incorporate the banning of small, lightweight plastic bags, the distribution only of larger, thicker plastic bags for a small fee, the elimination of ‘greenwashing’ alternatives such as non-woven polypropylene bags, the restriction of the use of paper bags only to food vendors and the implementation of incentives such as rebates and express checkout counters. Long-term solutions include practical initiatives to encourage and increase recycling and composting to reduce household waste and correspondingly reduce the need for rubbish bags. 

(iii) In response to the claim that the ban will not significantly reduce plastic pollution, it is pointed out that many countries have banned, taxed or charged for plastic bags, and these measures have been proven successful. 

In Denmark, since the introduction of a charge on plastic bags in 1993, the usage of plastic bags has been halved from approximately 800 million bags to 400 million bags, or only 80 bags per person annually. The People’s Republic of China banned lightweight plastic bags and imposed a charge for thicker, bigger bags, and reported a 66% drop in plastic bag usage. CNN Asia reported that China will save 37 million barrels of oil each year due to its ban on free plastic bags. 

A plastic bag tax levied in Ireland in 2002 has reportedly led to a 95% reduction in plastic bag litter there. A study by San Jose, California found that a 2011 ban instituted there has led to plastic litter reduction of approximately 89% in the storm drain system, 60% in the creeks and rivers, and 59% in city streets and neighbourhoods. 

The European Union, Rwanda, Bangladesh, India and many other nations already have plastic bag bans or taxes in place, and these jurisdictions have seen significant gains from less plastic pollution. Considering that plastic bag bans and taxes have been successfully implemented and upheld in both developed and developing countries and jurisdictions, there is no reason why it cannot be workable and effective in Malaysia. 

(v) Despite the claims of the plastics manufacturing industry, most plastics and polystyrene cannot be recycled. Only plastics categorised under codes 1 and 2 are actually separated and collected for recycling. Polystyrene is hardly ever recovered for recycling due to its light weight, low scrap value, prohibitive cleaning and transportation costs and the fact that it is almost always contaminated with food, grease and other matter. It costs more to recycle a bag than to produce a new one, and as such less than 1% is actually recycled. According to Jared Blumenfeld, Director of San Francisco’s Department of the Environment: “It costs USD4,000 to process and recycle 1 ton of plastic bags, which can then be sold on the commodities market for USD32.” 

As polystyrene and plastics are still made from petroleum, a non-renewable and heavily polluting resource, benzene used in the production of polystyrene is a known human carcinogen, and polystyrene and plastics release noxious gases including styrene, xylene and hydrogen bromide when broken down and incinerated, one should seriously question the flippant claim that plastics and polystyrene products could be safely and cheaply incinerated. 

Some tips to help consumers remember to bring their reusable shopping bags and takeaway containers with them include the following: 

1. Choose lightweight and portable reusable bags that can be folded neatly and tucked into your handbag or backpack. Make a habit of carrying them with you whenever you leave the house. 

2. Keep your shopping bags in your car if you are in the habit of driving to run errands and go shopping. 

3. Keep your reusable bags by the door that is the most frequently used in your home, where you will be most likely to see and remember them as you are leaving the house or putting on your shoes. 

4. Plan your shopping and include a written reminder in your shopping list. 

5. Purchase or DIY a foldable, lightweight bag that is small enough to hook to your keychain, so you will always have at least one reusable bag with you even when you are not driving or carrying a backpack. 

6. Wash your fabric reusable bags on laundry day (they hardly take up any space) to kill germs and remove dirt and odour, and hang them out to dry. Once they are dry, fold and stow them away immediately in your car, handbag, or backpack so you don't leave them behind on your next shopping trip. 

Plastic waste reduction measures should not be seen as a burden or sacrifice, but merely an adjustment. The environmental, societal and human health benefits of reducing plastic usage and waste are numerous and far outweigh the initial inconvenience of having to remember your reusable bags and containers. 


Friday, 30 December 2016

A Very Mutty Christmas

So this was Christmas. I hope you had fun. The near and the dear ones. The old and the young.
There were some initial plans to go out for a slap-up Christmas Eve dinner or Christmas Day brunch somewhere and maybe exchange a gift each with my friends, but that didn't seem particularly appealing, meaningful or original to me. Most of my friends and family were travelling and in between house-sitting and pet-sitting for everyone and juggling my own work and volunteer commitments, I didn't have much time to make dinner or brunch plans.
I was steadfast about spending my Christmas with and on shelter animals, however, and my friends Nicole, Mohala and Greg were totally on board with me on this matter. I had made an initial donation to KL Pooch Rescue and had been in contact with the founders, and so made an appointment to visit on Boxing Day. Nicole contacted Second Chance Animal Society and made an appointment for Christmas Day. Both shelters allow visitors and volunteers only by appointment. We chose these two shelters because we already spend so much time, energy and money on the SPCA, and decided KLPR and Second Chance are worthy beneficiaries because their founders and managers usually keep out of the hate-filled politics infecting so many local animal rescue groups. These organisations are reasonably transparent and well-run, give priority to the animals, and are no-kill shelters with strong pro-neutering policies.
I spent Christmas Eve at the SPCA, administering flea and tick treatment, cleaning ears and eyes and trimming claws. I finished off by handing out treats to the animals and tidying up the Cattery and Education Room.
On Christmas Day, Nicole came to pick me up and we drove to the backwaters of Hulu Langat to the Second Chance Animal Society shelter. It took us a long time to locate the place.
The two shelter staff are ethnic Chins from Myanmar and were hospitable and helpful to us. We got the nice lady to pose with Nic in the above picture. I gave the staff a little cash to buy themselves 'something nice for Christmas' with.
Nicole doesn't do things by half. She bought approximately RM900 worth of dog food for the shelter.

Yes, doggies, we love you too!
"Hello and welcome to my home!" 
"I am the King of the Hill!"
We handed out treats to all the dogs. Thankfully Nicole bought an enormous bag of dog treats and there was enough to go around.

The shelter reminded me a lot of the old SPCA shelter in its layout and physical structure.

Despite the number of dogs and the simplicity of the shelter, the shelter was reasonably clean. There was no pet waste or stagnant puddles on the simple concrete floor. The dogs seem happy and healthy and were not skittish at all.
I am really glad we visited and will work out ways of helping the shelter on a regular basis.

On Boxing Day, I picked Mohala and Greg up from their apartment and made arrangements for Nicole to meet us at the KLPR shelter after her Latin dance class. We were greeted at the gates by three delightful and friendly little dogs.

The shelter is clean and well-maintained and you can sense the founders' genuine love for animals. The dogs get to come out and play in the doggie playground and paddling pool daily according to their sections to keep things orderly and manageable, and all the dogs seem active, healthy and happy.
We handed out treats to all the dogs and petted them.
A friendly gorgeous doggie who happens to have a deformed jaw. I think he is stunning. Those eyes!
Co-founder Maury giving one of the dogs a bath in their Doggie Salon.
Wheelchairs and harnesses arranged neatly in a row.

We went into the playground to play with the dogs. I am not sure who had more fun, us or the dogs!
I had the good sense to bring my Furminator with me so I got to brush the dogs. They loved it and crowded around me for more.
Swimming lessons are about to commence. Look at the expression on the face of the cheeky doggie on the left.
The lifejacket is to stop the dogs from panicking. All dogs are able to swim, after all, but if they haven't got their lifejackets on, they keep trying to swim to the sides of the pool so they could hang on for dear life. KLPR Founder Shannon is really patient with them and the session was a joy to watch.
Powder the 3-legged dog showed us how it is done. No lifejacket needed for this little toughie!

Nic arrived after her dance class and it was time for the second round of Boxing Day treats.
We spent a very lovely day there at the KLPR shelter and each made a donation towards their building fund. We requested to be added to the volunteer chat group in order that we may return as volunteers.
A friend pointed out that while most of our friends in the city went on Christmas mall crawls, I went on an animal shelter crawl. I couldn't think of a better way to spend the long weekend.
To find out more about Second Chance Animal Society and KL Pooch Rescue, please click on the links below:
Second Chance Animal Society
Address: Pekan Batu 14, Hulu Langat, Selangor, Malaysia.
Phone number: 012-919 2263
KL Pooch Rescue
Address: 26, 14, Jalan Permaisuri 4/6, Bandar Mahkota Cheras, 43200 Cheras, Selangor, Malaysia   Phone number: +60 16-233 3647
Official website: http://www.klpoochrescue.org/

Thursday, 22 December 2016

Degustation at Barat and other Birthday Shenanigans

And so I made my 38th trip around the Sun two Fridays ago.
I took the day off and had a wonderfully long weekend as a result, thanks to two public holidays, Maulidur Rasul (Monday) and the Sultan of Selangor's Birthday (Tuesday).
Started off my birthday by sleeping in and having an artichoke for breakfast... at 1 p.m. Ah, I am very much the life of the party, as you can see.

I recently took in another rescued kitten and named her Harriet, after my hero, Harriet Tubman. Harriet is a feisty, beautiful, active little thing and fostering her is a pleasure.

My senior cats seem to think that fostering Harriet is a pleasure, too. My cats make each of my days a celebration.   
2 p.m. saw me stopping by The Honest Treat for some raw vegan cake and almond milk, just for me! You wouldn't have thought plant-based raw cakes to be so dense and rich, but they are. They were incredibly delicious and flavoursome too.

This is the Minty Chocolate raw cake. Not as minty as I would have liked it to be, but still delicious.

A slice of Berry Banana -- dense, smooth, fruity goodness.
Banoffee -- again, the toffee flavor isn't as distinctive as I would have liked it to be. It tastes of banana and mild chocolate. Very filling and yummy, just not very distinctive-tasting.
This is my favourite of the lot -- Tropical Surprise. This one really hits the spot with its fruity, tangy, zesty and sweet notes.

Then it was off to the National Blood Bank to keep an annual tradition alive.
The nurses wished me a happy birthday, which was nice! 237 of my friends wished me a happy birthday on Facebook, and I received approximately 80 private messages filled with good wishes. I feel very loved, indeed!

Portion control is out the window at the Blood Bank. This is what they are feeding us vegetarian donors these days. Pile on the fried noodles, Crane Driver! How about another ton of carbs? Thank you most kindly for your generosity, National Blood Bank, but I assure you that we are quite unlikely to die of starvation while in the middle of blood extraction.
And what's a birthday party without treats? I celebrated with my furry friends at the SPCA, with treats galore.
I had a simple birthday dinner that night at Pine3 Vegetarian Restaurant with Nicole, as I had to be up early the following morning to conduct the Pet Care Programme / Basic Animal Welfare Warrior Workshop at the SPCA. Nic made me a gift of these edgy typography steel posters. Aren't they delightful? Aren't they so 'me'? When your bestie knows your decor style and tastes so well, you might as well give her a free rein in creating a gallery wall in your bedroom for you.
Conducted the Pet Care Programme (PCP) at the SPCA on the day after my birthday and incorporated a basic Animal Welfare Warrior component. You may recognise this as Rafferty, the stuffed shar pei that lives in my bedroom. He's helping me teach the workshop participants how to collect evidence for an animal cruelty report now.

I taught the workshop participants how to pick up, handle and play with cats, apply Frontline flea spray and clean cat ears without being mauled.
And then I showed the workshop participants how to clean cat cages and litter trays and got them to help out with some cleaning at the shelter.
Then it was time for my second round of celebrations with Nic. We went to The Strand Mall for dinner out of food trucks and watched "Underworld: Blood Wars."
As it was a long weekend, my birthday festivities extended over 4 days. My good friends Angela, Rudhra, Baby Ava and Hari took me out to dinner and for a spot of ice skating. Hari's sons Goutham and Jay and nephew Dinesh joined us for the outing. They made me a gift of a new football to replace my old football, which exploded two months ago due to overinflation. We had dinner at Beyond Veggie and followed this up with shakes at Johnny Rockets.
Ice skating with my squad. Rudhra was pretty amazing for a first-time skater. Dinesh did pretty well too for someone who had never skated before. Jay and I spent much of our 2.5 hours on ice chasing each other down and playing tag. Poor Hari had to sit out due to an injured ankle.
The need for speed!
My good friend and mentor Lin Idrus invited me out for a birthday dinner the day after, and since both of us have long expressed the intention of trying out the degustation menu at Barat Mediterranean Vegetarian Restaurant, we took the opportunity to have a long, leisurely and wonderful dinner there on Tuesday night.

What I like best about Barat is its service and atmosphere, and how it makes customers feel welcome and relaxed. There is no pretension about this place. Just good food, friendly faces and exemplary service in a clean and welcoming environment. The staff are helpful, attentive and knowledgeable. Hot dishes are served hot and cold dishes are deliciously chilled. You can tell they take a lot of pride in their food and care about making your dining experience one to remember.

Towards the end of the dinner, right before serving us dessert, they even brought out a slice of birthday cake for me and sang me the birthday song. What a treat. The cake was a slice of red velvet with berry sauce and edible flowers. Barat really goes out of its way to make us feel good about dining there.
Dégustation Dinner at Barat Mediterranean Vegetarian Restaurant: A short review
1st course: Roasted Pumpkin Soup with ginger infusion and air-dried ginger, served with homebaked bread with apple cider vinegar and olive oil. We start off with a hot soup, and it is creamy and flavourful without being too rich. The bread has the right density and 'chew' to it. Looking forward to a vegan version soon (most dishes here are lacto-vegetarian).

2nd course: Salad of baby arugula, rocket, chard, sweet basil, dragon fruit, radish, dehydrated blueberries and tempura mandarin orange slices with roasted sesame dressing and blood orange press with olive oil. To others, this is the salad. To me, this is the pièce de résistance. The crunchy exterior and juicy tart interior of the tempura orange slices added a dynamic contrast to the cold crispness of the different fruits and vegetables, while the roasted sesame dressing provided a hint of umami. A definite winner, this salad. I could eat this all day, every day.

3rd course: Roasted Romano with pitted prune and cranberry (left), Patatas Bravas with tomato sauce (centre) and grilled sweet pepper with blue cheese and olive oil. The contrast between the savoury romano and sweet prune and cranberry made for an interesting combination, although I enjoyed it more than Lin did (she found it too sweet). The patatas bravas came with burning sprigs of rosemary and was quite mild-tasting even with the dipping sauce slathered on, so maybe it should have been named 'Patatas Dulce' instead. The sweet pepper was roasted a little too long and was a little too soft for my liking but paired very well with the blue cheese and olive oil, flavour-wise.

4th course: Mushroom zucchini aglio olio with grilled lemon. Easily one of the best pastas I have ever had, and it still struck me with its novel and piquant blend of flavours and textures although this was the second time I had it. The grilled lemon slice complemented the pasta and mushroom perfectly and everything about this dish is just really mellow.

5th course: Red endive with blackberry, blueberry, raspberry, mulberry with rose press and chia seeds (left) and golden fried tri-cheese with apricot and pineapple spiced jam (right). Again, I am trying to give up cheese and dairy products but made an exception for this special dinner. The cheese balls disappointed nothing but my conscience. You bite into the slightly crispy exterior to reveal the soft, ripe. full-flavoured cheese within. The pineapple and apricot spiced jam took away some of the cloying richness of the cheese.

The sweet berries, soaked in a fragrant rose-flavoured dressing, and served on the mildly bitter, sharp and crisp endive (if you haven't had endive before -- it tastes a lot like radicchio) was the ideal accompaniment to the savoury, viscous cheese.   

6th course: Basil pesto on fried aubergine and micro greens (left), sundried tomato pesto with ricotta cheese on japanese cucumber (centre) and capsicum pesto on wafer (right). Lin and I are both very partial to pesto, and this trio of pesto was quite delightful. The sweet mintiness of the basil really shone on the slice of fried aubergine, although Lin found the aubergine a little too greasy for her liking. The tomato and ricotta pesto was refreshing and delicious without actually standing out in my mind as being something truly remarkable. The capsicum pesto is zesty and full-flavoured and easily our favourite of the trio.

7th course: Spiced couscous with grilled asparagus, baby carrot and pomegranate dressing. Ah, the versatile couscous! Usually a little on the bland side, but fancied up with spices here at Barat. Grilled vegetables makes this wholesome dish livelier.

8th course: Watermelon gazpacho with a japanese cucumber stirrer and edible flowers. Lin and I decided that we will return to Barat soon just for the soups! If the roasted pumpkin soup were the warm, hearty sibling, the watermelon gazpacho is its trendy, sparkling, blinged-out sister. Refreshing, light, and flavoursome, this gazpacho simply sparkles.

Dessert: Poached peach with red currant, coconut ice cream and chocolate cake, served with balsamic reduction. Lin and I were too stuffed for the final pasta and jumped straight to dessert. Of course, like all women, we have special Dessert Stomachs which can hold prodigious quantities of sweets. This dessert trio made us want to stand up and applaud. The chocolate cake was in itself nice without being exceptional, but it paired very well with the balsamic reduction (I eat pretty much everything with balsamic reduction) and poached peach and red currant. The peach is still firm and warm, not squishy and soggy with syrup as with the canned variety. The smooth and fragrant coconut ice cream is light enough to stop a little short of being sinful, and is the perfect foil to the chocolate cake. I confess I licked the ice cream dish clean.
This meal is something that has been on my list of things to try for a long time, and I highly recommend it to everyone, vegetarian and non-vegetarians alike.
It has been another amazing birthday week and I am continually surprised and delighted by the friends who took time out of their busy days to make my birthday so memorable and lovely. So many things to be thankful for in this troubled world of ours.