Malaysia spent years inching towards a ban on single-use plastics such as straws and bags, all in the name of environmental conservation, but several green groups insist that simply forbidding the use of these products will not be enough to achieve lasting change.
The problem, for them, is a lack of any clear and long-term strategy.
The guiding light for the ban has been the Roadmap Towards Zero Single-Use Plastic 2018-2030, launched by the government in October 2018.
But Mohd Hafiz Jamaludin, who leads a company providing green product solutions through the use of renewable materials, said Putrajaya had only been pushing to reduce the use of plastics.
“The ban itself is half-baked.”
“It totally missed out on finding and providing immediate alternatives,” he told MalaysiaNow.
For example, he said, businesses in the food and beverage sector began sourcing for alternatives to plastic straws once the ban, implemented at different points across the country, took effect.
Many of them turned to paper straws instead.
“But paper uses more water and has a higher carbon footprint, and the end product is not user-friendly and has a terrible aftertaste,” he said.
“The ban itself is half-baked. Straws are banned, but no suggestions are made on any alternatives.”
The roadmap included provisions for a nationwide pollution charge for plastic bags and a ban on plastic straws which kicked in this year.
But Hafiz said there was no clear vision for the execution of these plans.
“According to the roadmap, the first three years should be focused on eliminating plastic straws, but it is not clear how this should be done.”
He also spoke of a need for a clear target.
“Are we banning petrochemical-based products, or encouraging the use of green materials, or encouraging the use of reusable products?
“The roadmap is not clear in terms of a long-term action plan. What is the overall objective?”
Another problem he sees is the lack of supply to meet the demand for any alternative to single-use plastic.
For example, bioresin, a plant-based substance, could reduce dependence on petrochemical-based materials, he said.
“But we don’t have bioresin manufacturers to cater to market demand.”
In any case, he added, most “green” and renewable materials at the moment are imported, meaning that they are more expensive and in limited supply.
“Even globally, bioresin production is unable to meet demand, mainly due to the supply, which is why prices are higher and materials are not abundant enough.”
Likewise, other materials that could be used to produce green products such as hemp, algae and pine are not cost-efficient.
Checks of eateries in the Klang Valley showed that many were still using plastic straws, while some shoppers appeared willing to pay the 20-sen pollution charge for plastic bags instead of bringing their own reusable bags.
For Hafizudin Nasarudin, president of Persatuan Aktivis Sahabat Alam, enforcement of these policies need to go further up the production line, to the manufacturing companies themselves.
“They should also be subjected to stricter policies, such as a mandatory switch to biodegradable and environmentally friendly plastics for plastic manufacturing companies,” he told MalaysiaNow.
In fact, he believes that such companies should be barred entirely from operating in the country.
But he acknowledges that it would not be easy to ban the production of plastic at the corporate level as doing so would affect demand for petroleum resources.
It would also require “high political willingness at the national level to carry out industrial reforms so that the country can ban plastics, not only at the consumer level, but also at the producer level”, he said.
For now, he admits that the ban on straws and plastic bags has helped reduce pollution to a certain extent.
“Maybe about 20% of the problems can be reduced,” he said.
And in any case, plastic is not always the villain.
“It is actually an incredible innovation and really fits its purpose – depending on its end use,” Hafiz told MalaysiaNow.