[Environmental/ Community Matters]
When I was in primary school, my dad brought back a souvenir for me from the USA in the form of a book – 50 Ways to Save the Planet – a children’s book full of creative ideas for recycling. Since then I’ve been quite the advocate for the environment, and finally to my delight, on 1 January 2017 my home state of Selangor imposed a ban on the use of polystyrene containers and while extending the “No Plastic Bag Day” on Saturdays to seven days a week.
Essentially, polystyrene containers were banned while a 20 sen charge per plastic bag was levied on consumers at supermarkets and retail stores throughout the state. While 20 sen per plastic bag may not seem a lot and many consumers won’t really mind paying, the actual intention behind the charge was to educate consumers on the importance of reducing the usage of plastic bags.
Now, five (5) months in to the ban, I normally bring some reusable bags along with me during my weekly trip to the supermarket and I’ve started to notice many shoppers doing the same.
The BBC ran a report recently stating that scientists say about eight million tonnes of plastic waste find their way into the world’s oceans each year. This amount of debris is, they say, like covering an area 34 times the size of New York’s Manhattan Island to ankle depth.
The feature also highlighted the possible threat to the food chain, by the plastics broken down into tiny fragments in our oceans. Tests by the Plymouth Marine Laboratory have shown that when minuscule particles of plastic are in the water, the creatures at the bottom of the food chain do ingest them.
So you throw a plastic bag indiscriminately, the fish eat the plastic bag, you eat the fish and you probably end up getting stomach or gastro intestinal cancer. Karma is unavoidable…
OK but what about the total ban on polystyrene containers?
The use of polystyrene takeaway products was widely touted as detrimental to the environment when disposed due to its non-biodegradable nature. In fact, the authorities attributed the indiscriminate disposal of polystyrene lunch boxes into the waterways as the cause of flash floods in the Klang Valley during torrential downpours due to the presence of polystyrene lunch boxes floating around impeding the flow of the flood waters into the drains.
Polystyrene boxes though are light material and floats on water hence it’s also highly likely there are plenty of other forms of heavier garbage that were also the cause of drains being blocked.
Polystyrene lunchboxes represent the most versatile, economical, user-friendly and effective product in the takeaway of food. It can insulate heat, wherein when the food is hot, the user holding the lunchbox will not feel any heat at all.
So, what is the alternative when polystyrene lunchboxes are banned? Hawkers now use solid plastic lunchboxes that contribute up to 3 times more to the waste problem as plastic lunchboxes are 15-16 grams in weight as compared to polystyrene lunchboxes which are 4-5 grams in weight.
A country’s “solid waste” and “waste management” is measured in metric tons and thanks to the use of solid plastic lunchboxes, we are now contributing 3 times more in terms of waste which is actually more detrimental to the environment.
Plastic lunchboxes also use 3 times more plastic resin than polystyrene lunchboxes, meaning more raw materials are used to produce them starting with the petrochemical plants that contribute heavily to pollution. For manufacturers to produce the plastic lunchboxes, the machines consume 4 times more electricity than manufacturing the polystyrene lunchboxes!
So wait a minute – the alternative product to polystyrene is actually worse for the environment!
And to compound matters, polystyrene lunchboxes are not biodegradable if not disposed off properly!
Biodegradability and/or compostability ensures that the end-product can be broken down and degraded back to its molecular state. Plastics actually have the ability to be biodegradable and compostable as well with modern manufacturing techniques and additives.
However, for the plastics to biodegrade back to its original base, the item must be properly disposed of and end up in a compost or landfill. Biodegradable, compostable or environmentally-friendly plastics of any kind that is indiscriminately disposed will NOT biodegrade and will continue to remain as their original state.
That goes to say that if you keep a solid plastic container in your kitchen cabinet, it will stay as a solid plastic container in your kitchen cabinet for years and not biodegrade.
So, what then is the solution for this problem?
As much as it would pain our authorities to admit, but our neighbours down South have the solution.
“The Government will not impose a ban on them in consideration of other factors, such as the cost of alternatives and inconvenience to hawkers and consumers, Senior Minister of State for the Environment and Water Resources Amy Khor said on Monday (9 May 2016).”
“Dr Khor said that while polystyrene foam packaging may be of concern in some countries where waste is landfilled, it is incinerated safely in Singapore at waste-to-energy incineration plants, which are fitted with pollution control equipment.”
In fact, there have been studies done to show that in many instances, the alternative is actually not more environmentally friendly.
Of course, the best alternative is to bring your own tiffin carrier, mug or tumbler. However sometimes you just don’t have one with you.
How do we solve this problem?
The people living in this country need a paradigm shift. We need to learn how to be more conscious about the environment and not litter indiscriminately. This is a culture that needs to be inculcated at an early stage and indeed at all levels – government, corporate and civil society.
More enforcement needs to be taken against the main causes of polystyrene pollution, be it more enforcement officers at construction sites, commercial and F&B outlets, and even residential areas. The change won’t happen overnight however like the 20 sen charge for plastic bags, consumers will slowly realise the importance of looking after the environment and the effect might trickle into other aspects of life – making Malaysian a country of people with a conscience.
Our local authorities should look at installing electricity-generating incinerators like Norway which transforms its trash and waste into energy – doing away with the need for fossil fuels to power the power plants thus solving the issue of insufficient landfills and rising energy costs.
China lifted its ban on polystyrene back in 2013 after a 14-year long ban. Perhaps it’s time our authorities reassess whether or not this ban is actually helping the environment or not, and if it’s not, stop the ineffective ban and consider other solutions instead.
At the end of the day, it’s up to us to reduce, reuse and recycle. We only have one planet to live on so it’s time to change our mindset.