Plastics — from boon to bane and back again

Are plastics really all that bad? Or is it our behaviour which is giving them the bad reputation?

pic by TMR FILE

PLASTICS are like drugs. We know they are bad — for the earth, animals and humans. There are even talks about how we are already consuming microscopic plastic particles each time we gulp a cold refreshing H20 from a plastic bottle. Yet, the world can’t live without plastics.

But are plastics really all that bad? Or is it our behaviour which is giving them the bad reputation?

Plastics play a major role in today’s modern civilisation. Their benefits are unmatched by any other material.

They are light, easily shaped, strong and inexpensive. Their ability to guard against contamination makes it useful in sterile medical environments such as hospitals and to store away leftovers.

How bad can it be if plastics are used to help reduce food wastage? It is once you tossed them out into the drain.

When discarded, chemicals contained in plastics migrate and build up into the environment and inevitably, our bodies.

Some states have banned various single-use plastics. Penang, since July 1, has banned businesses from dispensing plastic bags on Mondays.

Customers cannot even pay for them if they forget to bring their own bags.

Also since July 1, Selangor has banned plastic straws in all eateries.

One wonders if these efforts are but a lost cause based on the widespread pollution and devastating impact of this chemically designed material.

In the UK, the plastic bag tax, which was introduced in October four years ago, had led to an 85% reduction in the numbers of bags issued, as well as those found in streets and streams.

Behaviour has also changed. Many shoppers are bringing their own bags to supermarkets.

Lord Andrew Robathan, a Conservative member of UK’s House of Lords, wrote on on Tuesday where he suggested encouraging, or even sponsoring, “urgent further research into how to recycle plastics or how to reuse the embedded energy, especially petrochemicals, found in plastics.

“Currently, the huge amount of plastic waste is viewed as a problem, but it might be that it could become an asset.”

At the recent United Nations General Assembly, Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison said plastics recycling needs to be commercially sustainable as a model, where commercial operations can make recycling profitable and reduce the need for government subsidies.

Malaysia has echoed these suggestions.

The Housing and Local Government Ministry is considering a new policy to strengthen the country’s plastics industry and it is expected to be ready by next year. It would also help generate national revenues.

Its Minister Zuraida Kamaruddin said the global plastics recycling market is worth US$600 billion (RM2.52 trillion) and Malaysia should take the opportunity to capitalise on the industry’s potential.

The Malaysian Plastics Recycling Industry White Paper, published by Malaysian Plastics Manufacturers Association (MPMA) and Malaysian Plastics Recyclers Association is the plastic recycling industry’s first step in articulating views with stakeholders in order to quickly advance Malaysia’s recycling industry.

The plastics recycling industry has to date contributed RM4.5 billion to the Malaysian economy and could potentially grow up to RM20 billion annually with increased investment in better technology, infrastructure and upgrading capacity.

MPMA VP CC Cheah acknowledged the difficulty of solving the issue of plastic pollution. However, by working together with stakeholders, the plastics industry can build an advanced plastics recycling industry and catalyse the development of a circular economy.

“We must address the issue of human behaviour, and not demonise any particular material or industry,” Cheah said on Tuesday.

The policy is a welcoming effort, seeing how over 300 containers of contaminated plastic waste are stuck in Malaysian ports, imported by illegal recycling factories.

Although 60 containers are being sent back to the respective countries of origin, more still have nowhere to go as their senders could not be traced.

Energy, Science, Technology, Environment and Climate Change Minister Yeo Bee Yin said Malaysia is refusing to bear the storage and shipping costs.

So, while we continue to change our behaviour and try our best to toss plastic waste into the right bin, we can also now look forward to embracing them as something that could profit the country.

Farezza Hanum Rashid is the assistant news editor at The Malaysian Reserve.