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By Wong Ee Lynn

Cutting plastic bag use important in managing waste

The Penang government's move to ban plastic bags is a commendable and courageous measure, especially in light of the fact that the plastics manufacturing industry can be an aggressive pressure group.

The plastic industry tries to persuade the public that the clogging of landfills and waterways with plastic waste is a result of aberrant behaviour, namely, littering, rather than an indication that plastic products cause harm to the environment and wildlife.

If such is the case, then the banning and restriction of sale and use of plastic bags, polystyrene packaging, and excessive packaging of any kind will greatly reduce the opportunity for such "aberrant behaviour" in the first place.

The plastics industry also attempts to argue that such a ban would result in unemployment.

It is, however, unforeseeable to us that any industry, much less the plastic industry, would be so lacking in resilience and resourcefulness that it could not adapt to changes in consumer patterns and legislation and could not come up with alternatives or better products to meet market demands.

Further, the plastic industry feigns concern for the environment by arguing that the solution lies in instituting more measures to recycle plastic bags and polystyrene packaging.

This is in defiance of science, economics and common sense, which demonstrates that it costs more to recycle a plastic bag than to manufacture one from raw materials, that even the recycling process generates waste and pollution and consumes fuel, water and energy, and that many types of plastic products cannot be safely or feasibly recycled.

Those who oppose a plastic bag ban often raise the argument that a ban would result in the rise of carbon dioxide emissions and the destruction of trees for paper bags and other biodegradable packaging.

However, the Penang State Government's continuous public education efforts are adequate to ensure that most consumers and homeowners appreciate the importance of bringing their own shopping bags, takeaway containers and other reusable packaging, rather than demand biodegradable packaging made from paper and agricultural by-products.

As for the complaint that homeowners ‘need' plastic bags to put their household waste in, it is suggested that they use the plastic packaging that a large number of consumer goods, such as rice, bread, pet food and toilet paper are packaged in.

Ultimately, the goal of each household should be to reduce their waste through reducing, reusing and recycling resources, that in turn will result in significant financial and fuel savings, as the service of waste collectors and sanitation services could be reduced in frequency.

The state can assist such efforts by setting up more recycling collection centres in public and residential areas and establish facilities for the recycling of electronic and scheduled wastes and for the collection of organic and food waste for composting.

Measures can gradually be introduced to reduce excessive packaging by industries and retailers, for example, by eliminating styrofoam trays and clingfilm packaging for fruits and vegetables and replacing these with reusable, recyclable or compostable packaging.

Steps could also be taken to impose a tax or implement a refundable deposit system on items such as PET drinking water bottles and aluminium cans to encourage reusing and recycling and to deter littering.

As for the issue of losing voters over the banning of plastic bags, I believe that the Penang electorate is not ignorant of or indifferent to the issues of waste management, clogging of waterways and land scarcity.

Safe waste disposal in compliance with higher environmental standards does not come cheap.

Rather than constructing and operating new landfills and dredging and cleaning waterways, money could be put to better use to aid and assist the community.

One of the ways to address waste management and landfill shortage challenges would be to ban or restrict the use and distribution of plastic bags and other excessive, harmful or wasteful packaging.

One of the problems with recycling and waste management efforts in Malaysia is that manufacturers are not made responsible for the lifetime custody of their products.

If manufacturers were made to pay for the cradle-to-grave environmental costs of their products, then ease-of-recycling would become a design criterion, and there would be greater incentives to explore closed-loop production cycles and to create products with a high percentage of post-consumer recycled content.

Unless there is a solid and predictable market for recycled materials, private firms will not invest in the facilities to recycle, and market prices for recycled commodities will fluctuate wildly.

Perhaps the Penang government could also take the lead in welcoming investors who adhere to specific environmental standards and produce take-back measures.

The Penang government has validated its commitment to the environment by effecting a ban on plastic bags.

Although this move may be unpopular in the beginning, it would be only a matter of time before society understands its environmental and economic advantages.

Society, in general, is often initially resistant to change, but if all legislators were wary of instituting bans on environmentally harmful products, CFCs and DDT would probably still be used with wild abandon today.