KUALA LUMPUR: Visit any Ramadan bazaar during the fasting month in Malaysia and one will notice a common feature: food and drinks are all packed in single-use plastic.
Be it thirst quenching beverages or mouthwatering rendang, traders deftly shove the packed items into thin, flimsy plastic bags and hand them over to shoppers. It is easy and convenient.
In general, Malaysia has achieved some success in cutting down single-use plastic, especially in terms of how fewer plastic bags are now being used in supermarkets.
Penang was the first state to introduce the no free plastic bag campaign for all days at supermarkets in 2011. In fact, the state government is mulling over a blanket ban on all single-use plastic.
The Selangor government introduced a no free plastic bag policy in 2017, following the successful implementation of "No Plastic Bag Day" every Saturday in 2010.
Elsewhere, the Kedah state government said there will be no free plastic bags given out on Fridays and Saturdays, starting Apr 1 this year.
Despite these efforts, single-use plastic in markets and small food establishments is still prevalent. While the small businesses generally support environmental efforts, food vendors in particular, worry about how to manage their cost.
Those concerned with the environment say that the war against single-use plastic will not be effective, unless other players in the chain, including plastic manufacturers and consumers, are made to pull their weight.
According to a recent report by the Star, citing a study by YouGov Omnibus, at least one in five Malaysians use plastic straws daily. The survey results also revealed that about 10 per cent use straws several times a day.
More than a quarter of those polled said they had their own reusable straws. However, 32 per cent of Malaysians polled felt that they did not see the need to use reusable straws.
To further cut down on the prevalence of single-use plastic, Minister of Energy, Science, Technology, Environment and Climate Change Yeo Bee Yin last year launched a national roadmap towards zero single-use plastics by 2030.
There are three phases for the roadmap. Between 2019 and 2021, the government will seek to impose a pollution charge – at a minimum of RM0.20 (US$0.05) - on plastic bags given over the counters at fixed premises such as hypermarkets, departmental stores and fast food restaurants. The money collected for plastic bags will be surrendered to the state governments.
Straws are given only upon customers’ request, but at no charge.
Phases two and three of the roadmap will cover 2022 to 2025 and 2026-2030 respectively.
For now, the impact of the policy is still unclear. “As the implementation period of the roadmap has just begun, the statistics and reports released are still limited and no specific measurements can be determined,” Ms Siti Nurbaiyah Nadzmi, the minister’s press secretary, told CNA.
“However, with various awareness efforts and actions plans supported by stakeholders and consumers, we hope that there will be positive change towards the zero use of single-use plastics by 2030.”
SMALL BUSINESSES GENERALLY SUPPORTIVE
Small businesses interviewed were generally supportive of the government’s call to cut down on single-use plastic.
Mr Herman Shah, a chicken vendor in Shah Alam said: “We know there is an alternative to the normal plastic bag that is the biodegradable plastic bag ... If the government decides to abolish the use of plastic bags, we will just switch to the alternative ones that are made of biodegradable plastic.”
“I don’t think there will be any difference in terms of cost if we use the alternative.”
Mr Muhammad Ridhauddin, a vegetables vendor said: “We support the government’s plan to abolish the use of plastic bags. Lately, we can see more customers coming to buy vegetables with their own bags or trolleys.”
“It is easier this way as we don’t have to think of how to pack the produce for them ... This will (also) help us to reduce our cost by not having to pay for plastic bags.”
WORRIES ABOUT COST
Others, however, noted that it would impact their bottom-line.
Mr Taufek Abdul Rahman, who runs a Malay restaurant in Gombak, Selangor added: “We find it impossible to run a restaurant without the use of plastic straws or packaging.”
“Most Malay dishes are wet or served with gravy. If we pack them using paper, they will leak and it is not practical.”
He said while the restaurants can use metal straws, this will drive up cost. He opined that the government should give businesses more options to keep costs down.
Mr Abu Az, a food vendor selling roasted lamb said that if he needs to move from using plastic containers to paper containers, the cost would quadruple. “Why burden us and not the big players such as the plastic manufacturers?” he said.
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Meanwhile, a drink vendor at a night market, who only wanted to be known as Amrie, noted that under the rules of the Federal Agricultural Marketing Authority (FAMA), vendors cannot just use any biodegradable plastic bag.
All biodegradable plastic bags must be endorsed by the Industrial Research and Technology Organisation in Malaysia (SIRIM) before they are allowed for use.
There are actually biodegradable plastic bags that are cheaper than the type endorsed by SIRIM, but they cannot be used, the vendor said. "We do support the government’s plans to be more environmentally friendly, but we hope there are cheaper solutions for us small vendors."
CONSUMERS KNOW THEY MUST DO THEIR PART
Consumers are aware that for the war against single-use plastics to succeed, they too must do their part.
Ms Khor Sue Yee, co-founder of Zero Waste Malaysia, an environmental conservation organisation, said she was heartened to learn that the government is now spearheading the zero single-use plastic efforts.
“However, I still believe that individual action is the easiest to implement. Being a conscious consumer is something we can control,” she said.
Mr Eric Shai, 37, a self-employed based in Kuala Lumpur noted that said the government’s efforts would push more consumers towards reducing plastic usage.
“The whole campaign is not a punishment from my point of view. It is about encouraging everyone to bring their own containers, water bottles or reusable bags when they want to buy takeaway food or groceries.”
He recounted an incident at a supermarket when the cashier told a customer that he needed to pay for the plastic bags. The man simply said no and grabbed his items before leaving the store, Mr Shai said.
“If we don’t ask the public to pay extra for the plastic bags, this campaign will not succeed. People will not change if they don’t feel the (financial) pain.”
Certainly, consumers such as Ms Rachel Loh are cognisant of the need to reduce single-use plastic, as part of efforts to mitigate the effects of climate change.
“However, (cutting down on single-use plastic) needs to be coupled with innovation of biodegradable, as well as inclusive and accessible alternatives for consumers,” she said.
PLASTIC MANUFACTURERS UNFAZED
Are plastic manufacturers concerned about their livelihoods?
Mr Ben Chong, a senior sales manager at Advent Packaging Sdn Bhd in Klang said: “If the government wants us to move towards biodegradable plastic, then we will comply.”
He said that his company is already producing oxo-biodegradable plastic bags - as defined by the European Committee on Standardisation – and is looking into producing other biodegradable plastic products.
“In terms of livelihood, we are not affected. We believe we can manufacture more biodegradable plastic bags. People would still want to use plastic bags.”
Others plastic manufacturers, like Mr Siva, a manager from Dynamic Plastic Manufacturing Sdn Bhd, said their companies will not be affected because the current ban is only on plastic bags and straws. His company’s main business is in plastic bottles, he said.
ENFORCEMENT SHOULD NOT BURDEN SMALL BUSINESSES, SAYS ENVIRONMENTALIST
Mr Ruben Cortes, an environmentalist and director of social enterprise Build for Tomorrow, told CNA that the roadmap should clearly define what is single-use plastic.
“As far as the public is concerned, this involves plastic straws and plastic bags only. But if we look at the bigger picture, single-use plastics could mean plastic bottles as well,” he said.
He noted that based on recent clean-up activities, plastic bottles have been lodged at log booms placed in the rivers.
“We also have to look at the bigger picture such as who are the main players in the plastic industry. The big corporations and manufacturers will keep on producing these plastic products and distribute them. Rather than targeting the small vendors at night markets or bazaars, pressure should be put on big corporations.”
Mr Cortes said enforcement efforts focusing on small vendors and their customers are unlikely to work.
“This is also not fair as they are just buying and using the plastic products as part of their businesses ... At the end of the day, without proper education or awareness, the problem will recur.”