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Letter to Editor: Reduce and Keep Plastic Waste to a Minimum, for the Sake of Our Planet

Dear Editor,

Earth Overshoot Day 2021, the date in 2021 when humans have used up the amount of resources that can be renewed by the Earth in a year, came and went on 29 July; nearly a month earlier than the date it occurred in 2020. Even though the COVID-19 pandemic provided a temporary reprieve and pushed back the date of Earth Overshoot Day last year to 22 August, it only took less than a year for consumption and emissions to be pushed back up as countries slowly went back to business-as-usual. 

Having an Earth Overshoot Day signals that we are living beyond our means. It means that we are overdrawing on Earth’s resources and leaving less for future generations. We see the consequence of previous years’ excesses today, in the issues we are confronting with climate change, pollution, dying coral reefs and dwindling fisheries, just to name a few. To avoid future catastrophes, we should be aiming to push Earth Overshoot Day backwards in our calendar, towards December 31st. Instead, we are seeing it march inexorably forward. To reverse this march, we need to reconsider and rethink our production and consumption practices, and live within the means of resources that our planet can provide.

Today, one of the most pressing issues plaguing our environment is plastic usage and pollution, particularly single-use plastics. A 2019 study showed that Malaysia was responsible for 7.5% of the plastics flowing into the ocean, putting us ahead of even China, a country of 1.4 billion people with a GDP almost 40 times the size of Malaysia’s. 

According to a new environmental research released on 30 April (1), more than 1, 000 rivers account for 80% of global annual emissions in plastic, ranging between 0.8 million and 2.7 million metric tonnes per year. Our Klang river in Malaysia is listed as among the world's high emitters of plastic into the ocean. It holds the tie of being the second highest riverine emitter of plastic with India's Uthas river and the Philippines' Tullahan river.

The global use of plastics has outstripped our ability to manage the waste stream. Now, with circumstances surrounding the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, more and more people are opting for take-outs and deliveries. Almost all of our food is wrapped in plastics, and this causes a huge spike in packaging waste generation, primarily consisting of plastics.  

For decades, waste management has always been the responsibility of the public and government. However, this system needs further involvement and support to make it more efficient. A revision of the existing system is crucial to ensure greater responsibility right from the producers themselves. This is done through the Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) scheme, which holds producers accountable for end-of-life products. This means that the producers are responsible for the management of waste produced by their consumers.

The scheme requires governments to enact the EPR guidelines and regulations which require producers to ensure a clean and healthy environment. This begins from product concept and design, to the main production and distribution, and ends at the collection phases. Under the EPR, the responsibility of the manufacturer goes beyond waste treatment and recycling. It starts right at the beginning, from rethinking and redesigning product and packaging designs to reduce waste.

Even though the issue of plastic waste management seems grim, there is a growing momentum for solutions by all sectors. Commitments to a circular economy are gaining traction and there is a growing appetite for change. Policymakers are enacting stringent regulations and policies to address plastic pollution. Further, in Malaysia, the government has enacted a roadmap to zero single-use plastics by 2030.

Paired with this, we see some of the more progressive local enterprises proactively incorporating circularity in their products and packaging by switching to recyclable and recycled materials and adapting a reuse model. The outcome is the waste that we generate is reused or recycled and the EPR scheme provides the mechanism to enable producers and consumers to transform our waste back into products in a responsible manner. 

To slow down the advancement of Earth Overshoot Day, we must collectively address the plastics problem in a sustainable way. Simply expanding waste collection, landfill, and incineration is not enough. The most significant step would be to combine these measures with an absolute reduction of plastic in the system, and a dedicated EPR scheme which holds producers responsible for the waste management of their products. The time to act is now.

Footnote: 1. Where does the plastic in our ocean come from?  https://ourworldindata.org/ocean-plastics

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