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Opinion Piece: To Use or Not To Use? Our Complicated Relationship with Plastic

Our relationship with plastic is complicated, to say the least. On the one hand, plastic has made our lives a great deal easier and safer – from life-saving medical equipment and protective gear to keeping food items fresher for longer. However, 60 years after the first piece of plastic was invented as a fossil fuel-based product, plastic pollution is now a global crisis.

Undoubtedly, plastic is an important component of modern life, and we cannot simply wave a magic wand and do away with all types of plastic products. However, our reliance on it does not justify the devastating impacts of plastic on the planet, on wildlife, and on our marine ecosystem. Plastic trash in the ocean is produced on and flows from land, poisoning both and causing devastation. 

We face the very real threat of plastics outnumbering fish by volume in the ocean by 2050 and, with trillions of pieces of microplastics floating around in our oceans, we are already ingesting them through the seafood we consume. Research has found that in the worst cases, people are ingesting up to a credit card’s worth of microplastics a year.

Even prior to the current pandemic, pollution stemming from mismanaged plastic waste had reached crisis levels around the world. Approximately 8 million tonnes of plastics enter the ocean annually adding to the 150 million tonnes already in the seas. The vast majority leaks into the Indian and Pacific oceans, from the many coastal-lands and countries are located. Under current trends, the volume of plastic waste will increase four times between 2010 and 2050 – meaning that, by weight, the ocean could contain more plastic than fish.

Where do we stand in this crisis? As a start, Malaysia ranked the highest among six countries in Southeast Asia in terms of annual per capita plastic packaging consumption, at 16.78 kg per person. The estimated annual post-consumer plastic waste generation in Malaysia in 2016 was 1,070,064 tonnes, or 76,500 garbage trucks’ worth! We recycled about 24% of our plastics in 2019, and an estimated 1 million tonnes of plastics was thrown away per year.
Malaysia has sufficient infrastructure to process large quantities of recycled waste materials. However, instead of processing and recycling waste produced in the country, a majority of the recyclers and aggregators import recyclables. As a result, and depending on the locally prevailing collection and disposal system, potential recycled materials end up in sanitary landfills and dumpsites, leaking their toxins into the soil and contaminating ground water, or are littered in the environment, eventually contaminating our rivers and then turning up in the sea.

We urgently need improved waste management and recycling systems, reduced usage of single-use plastics, and better product design; which is addressed by the Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) scheme. 

Under a proposed EPR scheme, the responsibility of the manufacturer goes beyond waste treatment and recycling. More importantly, as a policy instrument, the scheme also encourages the adoption of a holistic eco-design in the business sector, resulting in improved product and packaging designs. All in all, producers play a greater role throughout the entire lifecycle of their products and packaging.

By following a ‘polluter-pays principle’, producers and importers of packaging would be charged a fee for the packaging they put into the Malaysian market based on the volume and types of packaging. The EPR fees could then provide stable sources of funds to expand collection, improve sorting and strengthen recycling infrastructure. Further, the EPR scheme can also be built upon Malaysia’s Roadmap towards Zero Single-Use Plastics 2018-2030 to reduce plastic consumption and waste. 

Companies placing packaged goods on the market need to take responsibility for the full life-cycle impacts of their plastic products and packaging. However, when it comes down to it, the power is ultimately in the hands of us – the consumers. In conjunction with International Plastic Bag Free Day 2021, let’s start with the simple step of refusing a plastic bag and carrying a reusable bag with us at all times. A step further would be to stop the use of plastic bags in wet markets and supermarkets, as the amount of plastic bags used in these establishments is staggering. Bring your own bags or containers next time you go grocery shopping. It may seem like a small step, but every time we refuse a plastic bag, that’s one less piece of plastic waste in the environment. 

Tan Sri Dr. Jemilah Mahmood,                              and               Ms. Sophia Lim 
Special adviser to the Prime Minister                                       Executive Director / Chief Executive Officer
on Public Health                                                                          WWF-Malaysia


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