DESPITE the pleas, the warnings, the threats over the years, nothing really worked until China suddenly decided it wasn’t taking any more crap from the West.
For years, it had imported the bulk of plastic waste from countries like the United States and Australia and from Europe, and recycled it into pellets for manufacturing.
Because of that, developed countries didn’t really move to reduce the use of plastics even though environmentalists were desperately sounding the alarm on how plastic was coating beaches, choking waterways and the soil, and killing marine life.China’s decision to stop importing beginning 2018 meant it was withdrawing from a US$200bil (RM826bil) global recycling industry, but the Chinese government realised that kind of money wasn’t worth the terrible effects on its environment and its citizens.
Besides, it had its own plastic waste to manage. China’s recycling companies quickly moved elsewhere, in particular to nearby South-East Asia, like Malaysia.
And in just one year, Malaysia became the new dumping ground for plastic waste and got featured in exposes by the Guardian newspaper, the BBC and Australia’s 60 Minutes.Residents in Jenjarom, Selangor, became famous for fighting the illegal recyclers that had turned huge tracts of land into unsightly dumpsites and were burning toxic non-recyclable plastic waste at night.
Malaysia and other countries like neighbouring Philippines say much of the plastic waste was falsely labelled or smuggled in, and they are demanding that the culprit countries take back their waste.
While there is money to be made, it cannot justify the dire consequences on health and the environment. Not only that, the Guardian report quotes a University of Georgia study which showed that 55% of Malaysia’s own plastic waste was mismanaged, with it being dumped or inadequately disposed in open landfills. So, we certainly don’t need more garbage from elsewhere.With their plastic garbage growing like mountains and overwhelming landfills and dumpsites, governments in developed nations are scrambling to improve their recycling capabilities and reduce plastic use.
Finally, they are paying heed to the United Nations’ global call to action on plastic pollution, which has reached epidemic proportions with an estimated 100 million tonnes of plastic already dumped in the oceans.
In May, 186 countries, except the United States, signed a legally binding UN pact to track and significantly reduce plastic pollution. It was one of the quickest agreements approved in UN history.
Many governments are already moving towards banning single-use plastics, Malaysia included. Our government wants to eliminate single-use plastics by 2030. There are restrictions on the use of plastic bags in many states and the ban on drinking straws in Selangor eateries began on Monday.
That’s all well and good. But if we are to save the world from death by plastic, we the people on the planet must wean ourselves from the addiction to it.
I have tried to do my bit by writing on recycling and plastic pollution in this column. I warned readers that if we don’t act, there would be more plastic than fish in the seas by 2050, if we go by weight (Beat it if you don’t want to eat it, Jan 11, 2017).
I also wrote on the urgent need to cut down on the use of single-use plastics (Repent, oh ye killers of the Earth, Nov 14, 2018).
And here I am today on the subject of plastic pollution again. I do wonder if I sound like a broken vinyl record player stuck in a groove (this analogy will only be understood by older readers!), but write I must because some things bear repeating over and over.
Plastic waste is now the world’s “new” radioactive waste and it is being shipped in containers that go from port to port as one government after another refuses to allow them in.
Like radioactive waste, plastic scrap doesn’t decay for years and can release toxic chemicals that can cause cancer and endocrine disruptions.
Indeed, the more I learn about plastic pollution, the more horrified I feel.
I once took comfort in the fact that there are biodegradable plastics. But now we are told that is a lie. Most types of such plastics do not harmlessly degrade but merely disintegrate into microplastics, which have entered our food chain and are found even in sea salt.
The latest news is that 50 studies globally show on average, we are ingesting about 5g – or a credit card-size worth – of plastic every week from the air, food and water we drink.
For more than a decade, I have been rejecting plastic shopping bags by bringing my own. But my cupboards are still full of them, accumulated over years of thoughtless shopping.
I also sort out my household waste, especially plastic, which I presume the garbage collector will send to recycling centres.
A few months ago, I wondered how much of my plastic is really recyclable as I realised single-use plastics were more than shopping bags and straws.
So I decided to accumulate the single-plastics I used in my daily life. After several weeks’ worth of it, I contacted Vincent Chung, an ex-accountant turned recycling and upcycling entrepreneur who runs Artemis Space in Cheras, Kuala Lumpur, that collects plastic waste from the surrounding community.
His assistant Kana Foo went through my collection and told me just about everything I had was not recyclable, at least not in Malaysia.
These included pantyliner fabric-cum-plastic backing, pill blister packs, aluminium-lined snack packets, food wrappers, cling film, clear plastic bags that contained new clothes, the packaging from courier companies (“The only thing that can be recycled is the paper with your name and address,” said Kana) and the glossy plastic from my Korean snail face masks.
Vincent, who gives frequent talks on plastic recycling, said there are more than 1,000 types of plastics and they are classified under seven general types but only types one, two and five are recyclable in Malaysia. These are mainly food containers and tubs and bottles that should be cleaned before collection.
I knew the sorting of household waste, in particular plastic waste, requires diligent work, like how the Japanese do it, but I didn’t think it was so difficult.
Plastics I used to blithely throw into my recycling box now goes in my garbage bin. Every time I push a piece in, I feel a pang of guilt, knowing it will go into already stressed landfills and possibly kill another turtle or dolphin.
I wish I can avoid plastic but it is everywhere. Kana and Vincent advised me to look for reusable alternatives such as washable pantyliners and bamboo toothbrushes and to reuse plastic bags and containers over and over to stop them from entering the environment for as long as possible.
That is truly the rub, folks. While we wait for governments and industries to get their act together to reduce plastic packaging, develop more efficient recycling methods and find organic alternatives, we consumers must make a conscientious effort to do our part.
We need to start breaking our plastic addiction. Giving up drinking straws is just a very small start. Let’s do more since it is Plastic Free July, an annual global challenge to people to go single-use plastic-free for one month.
Aunty urges readers to check out Star2.com’s story, ‘Types of plastics that can be recycled’, as well as the initiatives by Zero Waste Malaysia and Sampah, Menyampah.