Plastic matters

by Gan Pei Ling / 22 November 2010 © The Nut Graph

SELANGOR’S No Plastic Bag Day campaign recently came under attack in a report on online news portal The Malaysian Insider.

Elizabeth Wong

The 9 Nov 2010 report claimed that “hypermarkets and retail shops” in Selangor have suffered up to 30% decline in their businesses on Saturdays since the Selangor government implemented the campaign in January 2009. In a 12 Nov 2010 report, the news portal also rubbished Selangor executive councillor Elizabeth Wong‘s claim, that plastic bags are an environmental problem, by citing environmentalists and scientists.

Are The Malaysian Insider reports accurate? Are they doing what good journalism is meant to do — hold public officials accountable for the decisions they make that affect public life? Or do the reports miss the point by taking things out of context?

Sloppy reporting

Interestingly, even though Penang has been more aggressive in implementing the campaign, the Selangor government has suffered most of the brunt from The Malaysian Insider’s reporting.

More interesting was how the news portal attempted to be critical of the Selangor government’s campaign. The news portal only cited three supervisors in its 9 Nov 2010 report that claimed “hypermarkets and retail shops” in Selangor had suffered up to 30% drop in businesses on Saturdays. It also quoted only customers that were unhappy with the state’s campaign.

A customer in Carrefour Market helps herself to cardboard boxes provided as an alternative to plastic bags — the mini hypermarket in Bangsar South has a no-plastic-bag policy (© Lainie Yeoh)

In comparison, The Star‘s 11 Jan 2010 report in the campaign’s early days found that even though some shoppers were caught unaware, many were still supportive of the campaign. In addition, retailers like Tesco, Giant, Jusco and Ikea actually started encouraging its customers to use reusable bags even before the state government began its campaign.

It is also problematic when the reports stress a 30% loss in business on Saturdays without asking the question whether that loss in business has been compensated in an increase on other days. If it has, then the alarming claims that business has been affected by an environmental-friendly policy may be misguided and mischievous.

The Malaysian Insider report misses the nuance and context of the criticism by scientists; they are against focusing solely on banning plastic bags.

On top of that, The Malaysian Insider claimed in its 12 Nov 2010 report that scientists and environmentalists have dismissed plastic bags as a “non-issue”. To put things into context however, it is true that scientists and environmentalists have been critical of governments but only of those that focus on banning plastic bags alone without implementing more concrete and comprehensive plans to save the environment.

Hence, it is only problematic if the No Plastic Bag Day campaign were all that the Selangor government was doing in its effort to conserve the environment. That isn’t the case at all.

The Pakatan Rakyat-led government enforced a moratorium on logging in Selangor as soon as it came into power. The Selangor Forestry Department is taking various measures to prevent illegal logging.

The Selangor government also gazetted the Kota Damansara forestAyer Hitam forest, and the firefly sanctuary in Kampung Kuantan in 2010. The state is engaging on a long-term plan to rehabilitate the Klang River as well.

There is much more the Selangor government could do to conserve the environment but I believe credit should be given where it is due, too.

Small steps

The Petronas Twin Towers during Earth Hour 2009 (© Lai Seng Sin | Wiki Commons)

Sceptics often criticise campaigns such as No Plastic Bag Day and Earth Hour on the basis that they merely create the illusion that small steps can make a difference. On my part, I would not be so quick to dismiss these small steps because they do help to increase awareness.

Additionally, reducing waste requires consumers to be constantly mindful of the impact of our actions so that we can choose to reduce our consumption at many levels. Symbolic campaigns like No Plastic Bag Day and Earth Hour may not save the planet, but I think they do serve to inspire consumers to a certain degree to rethink the impact of their consumption patterns on the environment.

Any environmentalist will tell you there is no one way to save the planet. Solving our impending environmental crises requires a fundamental shift in the way we think about and treat our environment.

Despite the urgency of these problems though, such change is expected to take decades. The least the media could do is to report on the issues as accurately and fairly as possible to contribute to meaningful debate and greater awareness about how our personal consumption choices can accumulatively save or destroy our planet.


Gan Pei Ling does not fancy picking up plastic bags or bottles in a beach or waterfall clean-up. She salutes those who do so regularly.

Related post: The plastic menace

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