Tuesday, 22 January 2008

Letter: Discourage Polystyrene and Plastic Bag Usage


As an environmentalist, I am heartened by the many positive responses from readers to USM’s ban on Styrofoam tableware (7 Jan 2008) and China’s ban on plastic bags (9 Jan 2008).

The Government must be responsive to the fact that the state of our environment is a matter of growing concern to the rakyat. Many countries have already taken the dynamic step of banning, taxing or phasing out plastic bags and polystyrene products, and many Malaysians have called for our Government to do the same.

In all my jungle and coastal cleanup efforts, I have discovered that jungle litter consists mostly of Styrofoam food boxes, plastic packaging and PET bottles, while polystyrene foam pieces from buoys and fishing trawlers’ iceboxes makes up much of beach litter.

As long as the prices of plastic and polystyrene products are kept artificially low, these items will continue to befoul our natural environment and annihilate wildlife. The true cost, that is, the environmental cost, of plastic and polystyrene is actually much higher when calculated cradle-to-grave to include the costs to human health, to animal lives lost, of disposal and of cleaning up beaches and rivers and after flash floods.

However, instead of taking the bold and necessary move of phasing out the use of plastic bags and polystyrene through a combination of incentives and penalties for the manufacturing sector, corporations and consumers; the Ministry of Housing and Local Government, together with the Malaysian Plastics Forum and a few participating retailers, opted to take the ineffectual and apologetic move of putting up bins to collect clean and reusable plastic bags (Metro, 13 November 2007).

I have inspected the bins at 12 participating retail outlets and all are invariably full of dirty and wet rubbish. Plastic bags are still being given out by cashiers with wild abandon and shoppers are almost entirely unaware of any campaign to reduce the usage of plastic bags.

There are many progressive steps the Government could take to phase out the use of plastic and polystyrene products and mitigate the damage done to Malaysia’s ecosystems and tourism potential. In my humble opinion, I would recommend that:

1. The Department of Fisheries and Ministry of Rural Development subsidise the purchase of durable, permanent cooler boxes and buoys for the fishing community to replace their polystyrene ones. The polystyrene ones can then be collected for proper disposal. This can improve the quality of life of the fishing community, as they would be spared the expense of having to frequently replace their foam coolers and buoys.
2. To impose a heavy tax on thin plastic bags (i.e. less than 0.025 milimetres), polystyrene products and PET drink bottles to reflect their true environmental cost.
3. To put in place a system to replace plastic packaging including cellophane sweet wrappers and cigarette packet wrappers with biodegradable plastic, the cost of which shall be borne by the manufacturers.
4. To ease the transition of turning Malaysia into a litter-free society by creating incentives for consumers to bring their own shopping bags and food containers; including by providing cash rebates, shopping bonus points and express checkout lanes.

The Government must have the political will to reverse the effects of environmental degradation and climate change. An efficient combination of public education, legislation and stringent enforcement will work better than expensive campaign launches in protecting what is left of our natural environment and wildlife.


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