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Preserving Malaysia's Lifelines: The Urgent Need to Combat Plastic Pollution in Rivers

Malaysia, renowned for its abundant rainforests and marine biodiversity, stands as one of the world's 17 megadiverse nations. The intricate network of 189 river basins, originating in the highlands and meandering across the country, forms the lifeblood of diverse ecosystems. However, the increasing menace of plastic pollution poses an imminent threat to the health and sustainability of these crucial waterways.
Beyond their role as vital water sources, rivers fulfil multi-faceted functions such as sustaining livelihoods, providing transportation routes, generating hydroelectric power, irrigating agricultural land, establishing settlements, and offering recreational spaces. However, the health of these invaluable ecosystems is jeopardised due to human activities, with plastic pollution emerging as a prominent and irreversible threat.
Plastics, known for their versatility, have become ubiquitous in our daily lives and various industries, from medical equipment to technological innovations. The benefits of plastics are undeniable, particularly their convenience. However, the associated environmental challenges, especially the adverse impact on river ecosystems, were not adequately anticipated. Consequently, the proliferation of single-use plastic products worsens the problem.
Plastic proliferation: A menace to aquatic ecosystems
Plastic items, namely plastic bags, straws, take-out food containers, and bottles are discarded after a single or brief use, contributing significantly to environmental pollution. Typically composed of low-density polyethylene (LDPE) or polyethylene terephthalate (PET), these plastics, while lightweight and cost-effective, pose persistent environmental issues.
Rivers, as natural conduits, play a crucial role in transporting nutrients and sediments from land to the ocean. However, they also serve as pathways for plastics. Research revealed that over 80% of plastic waste is distributed by more than 1,000 rivers, emphasising the need to address the plastic waste issue in both major rivers and smaller water bodies.
The improper disposal of plastic waste, notably through littering, significantly contributes to river pollution. Improperly discarded plastics can disrupt the natural flow of water, leading to localised flooding. Plastic waste can also enter water bodies through stormwater runoff and drainage systems, posing a severe threat to river health and aquatic ecosystems.
As plastic waste accumulates in rivers, the detrimental effects on ecosystems and their inhabitants intensify. Aquatic life may ingest or become entangled in plastic waste, resulting in serious harm or even death. Furthermore, the slow decomposition of plastics into microplastics further threatens aquatic life and human health.
Microplastics, now commonly found in marine and freshwater environments, are also becoming increasingly prevalent in residential and urban areas. Apart from affecting aquatic life, their ingestion poses potential cascading effects on entire ecosystems, including humans. Beyond their physical presence, microplastics release harmful chemicals, raising concerns about the potential contamination of drinking water and its implications for human health.
Global statistics and the way forward
The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in 2022 reported that only 9% of the world’s used plastics are recycled, with 15% remaining as residues after recycling. Equally alarming, 50% of plastic waste ends up in landfills, while 19% undergoes incineration, contributing to environmental degradation as plastics are non-biodegradable.
Furthermore, approximately 22% of that waste bypasses waste management systems and ends up in uncontrolled dumpsites, open pits, or terrestrial and aquatic environments, particularly impacting economically disadvantaged countries. A survey conducted by Utility Bidder, an energy service provider from the United Kingdom (UK) showed Malaysia ranks among the top ten global producers of plastic waste that reaches the ocean.
However, growing public awareness and demand to reduce single-use plastics have spurred global efforts by governments and environmental organizations to curb plastic consumption and pollution. The Malaysian government, for instance, had in November last year signed a memorandum of cooperation with The Ocean Cleanup, a non-profit international project with a mission of ridding the world’s oceans of plastic. Via the memorandum, the two parties are promoting and developing cooperation in the removal and management of river plastic waste in Malaysia, to reduce ocean inflows of plastic.
WWF-Malaysia actively addresses these waste issues through dedicated initiatives, including river clean-ups and plastic upcycling efforts. Collaborations with Fuze Ecoteers led to a river cleanup at Sungai Kayu Ara, Damansara, resulting in 296 kg of trash collection in just a few hours. Working alongside Reimagine Plastic at Sungai Keruh, a tributary of the Sungai Klang, we collected 68 kg of waste within merely two hours. Similarly, our joint effort with Inspirasi Kawa led to the removal of 97 kg of trash from two short river clean-up sessions at Sungai Selangor. Across all these river clean-up activities, a common finding is that the majority of the trash collected comprised plastic waste.
Efforts to remove existing waste are crucial, yet sustainable plastic use and consumption are paramount for long-term solutions. Embracing a circular economy approach to holistically manage plastic throughout its lifecycle, ensures resources are used efficiently and waste is minimised. Let's rethink our plastic use and consumption to conserve energy and resources. At 8.30pm on 23 March, join us for Earth Hour by switching off your lights, and pledge to safeguard nature at wwf.org.my/earthhour. Together, we can nurture our planet for a sustainable future.

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