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.
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?
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 forest, Ayer 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.
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
by Gan Pei Ling / 20 July 2010 © The Nut Graph
“IT’s not sexy, that’s why nobody cares,” a friend comments on why few Malaysians are concerned about the problem of plastic waste even though it threatens the environment that sustains us. “It’s sexier to talk about renewable energy and green buildings than how we handle our trash,” the friend adds.
That is until some of our state and local governments took the initiative to launch No Plastic Bag Day campaigns. Penang was the first to launch the campaign in July 2009. Those without reusable bags have to pay 20 sen for a plastic bag when they shop on Mondays. In January 2010, the campaign was extended to include Tuesdays and Wednesdays. At the same time, Selangor launched its own No Plastic Bag Day campaign on Saturdays. Subsequently, the Miri and Sibu municipal councils in Sarawak, as well as Kota Kinabalu city hall and six other districts in Sabah announced similar campaigns.
How effective are these campaigns? Can they really help save the planet? And what can be done to make these campaigns more popular?
The idea of banning plastic bags to reduce its use is not new. In 2002, Ireland imposed a 15 euro cent tax on plastic bags, and its use dropped over 90% within five months. In the same year, Bangladesh banned polyethylene bags in Dhaka as the bags were choking the drainage system and causing floods in the capital.
China banned plastic bags in 2008. A year later, it was reported that the country saved the equivalent of 1.6 million tonnes of oil and 40 billion bags. Other countries that have introduced additional charges or tax on plastic bags include Rwanda, Eritrea and Switzerland.
In Selangor, the use of plastic bags was reduced by five million in the first four months of its campaign. In Penang, the amount was one million bags over the same period.
(Pic by roberto / sxc.hu)
Despite such reductions in plastic bag use, Ireland’s scheme has been criticised for triggering a 400% increase in the purchase of bin liners and greater reliance on paper bags. Contrary to the popular belief that paper bags are more eco-friendly, they actually require more energy to manufacture and cause more pollution during production. This probably explains why Penang and Selangor did not compel or encourage retailers to replace plastic with paper bags.
Convincing the public
Asking consumers to sacrifice requires some doing, especially when Malaysians are so used to free plastic bags that some consumers mistake it as a “right”. Some consumer associations, for example, claimed that the 20 sen charge was decided without their consultation and was therefore unfair.
Perhaps as a public relations measure to help consumers make the switch, Penang Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng announced that the state would use the funds collected from the plastic bag charges to eradicate hardcore poverty.
In Selangor, participating retailers are required to use the funds to conduct corporate social responsibility programmes. The Selangor government encourages these retailers to conduct programmes relating to the environment.
Perhaps one other way to compel consumers to change their lifestyle is to lead them to the Pacific Garbage Patch that stretches several hundred miles in the Pacific Ocean. The Pacific Garbage Patch is the largest of five plastic garbage patches in our oceans. For now, there is no way to clean up these garbage patches, scientists say.
As a result of our consumption and disposal of plastic, scientists estimate there are six times more plastic than plankton in the “continent”. Trapped by circulating ocean currents, the plastic we throw away are choking fishes and seabirds to death as the marine animals mistake them for food. Every year, more than 100,000 marine animals such as dolphins, whales and sea turtles are killed because of plastic bags.
Plastic waste found on the beach in Kuantan (Pic by Carolyn Lau and Ng Sek San)
If we don’t care about marine life, here’s another thought that should give us pause. Plastics absorb pollutants like polychlorinated biphenyls, otherwise known as cancer-causing PCBs, and pesticides.
“These particles are ingested by marine life and pass into our food chain. We all do it: we throw this stuff, this packaging, what I call dumb plastic, into the bin, and we think it has gone. But it comes back to us one way or another. Some of it ends up on our dinner plates,” British adventurer and environmentalist David de Rothschild tells The Guardian.
In 2009, Rothschild sailed to the patch in a vessel made entirely of plastics called Plastiki. The billionaire banking heir has definitely found a way to make the issue of plastic waste seem sexier.
Considering some of the gruesome facts surrounding plastic bags pollution, 20 sen per bag is a really small price to pay.
The Malaysian Plastic Manufacturers Association has proposed to the Penang government to give out free oxo-biodegradable plastic bags so that consumers can still enjoy free plastic bags on campaign days.
However, oxo-biodegradable plastic bags are not 100% degradable. They can only degrade in the presence of sunlight and oxygen. Those that end up in landfills would not degrade at all. Therefore, reusable bags are still the best option.
For certain, most of our plastic waste comes from packaging that is often unnecessary. Malaysian consumers cannot hope to rely solely on governments to resolve our plastic waste problem. After all, in a marketplace driven by profit, consumer demand and lifestyle are often much more powerful than government regulations.
As Leo Hickman writes in The Guardian on 11 Aug 2009: “[Plastic bags] are the ultimate symbol of our throwaway culture.”
No Plastic Bag Day campaigns are merely the first step towards stimulating the public to rethink the impact of our “use and throw” habit on the very environment that sustains us.
Gan Pei Ling believes reusable bags are the best solution to our plastic bag dilemma, but would like to remind readers to wash their reusable bags frequently in the interest of hygiene.
Related post: Plastic matters