Environmentally aware consumers may feel guilty when they throw away, say, a fast-food plastic container and the fork that came with it after using them just once, and they may tut disapprovingly as picnickers leave their food packaging on the beach for the tide to clean up and carry away.
But who is really to blame for the worldwide throwaway culture and the pollution it causes?
“We all call single-use plastic ‘throwaway’ but there really is no such place as ‘away’,” Greenpeace Malaysia campaigner, Heng Kiah Chun told MalaysiaNow.
“When we throw something away, it has to go somewhere.”
Previously, MalaysiaNow reported that the average Malaysian uses and then discards around 17kg of single-use plastic every year in the form of bags, cutlery, straws and other throwaway items, making Malaysia the fifth worst global plastic polluter of the oceans.
But does “the average Malaysian” have any realistic alternative to simply throwing it away?
“More responsible individual disposal is not going to help in countries with poor infrastructure,” said Heng.
“If there are no convenient reuse alternatives available, then reducing the amount of single-use plastic they use is very challenging for individual people.”
“More responsible individual disposal is not going to help in countries with poor infrastructure.”
Now the Covid-19 pandemic has turned isolating families into consumers whose every need, from food to furniture, can be brought to their door in single-use plastic.
“Individual efforts to break free from throwaway plastic will not change packaging, distribution and waste management systems,” Heng said.
“This is because corporations control the supply of single-use plastic and are therefore ultimately responsible for plastic pollution.
“Most of their packaging ends up in landfills or the sea.”
Greenpeace Malaysia is calling for a revolution by corporations, government and local communities to end the throwaway culture and usher in a culture of requiring more durable goods that can be cleaned, repaired and used again.
“Corporations control the supply of single-use plastic and are therefore ultimately responsible for plastic pollution.”
“The government should prioritise policies to reduce single-use plastic packaging by developing alternatives which use systems of refill and re-use and other systems not dependent on disposables,” said Heng.
Greenpeace International’s 2018 report “A Crisis of Convenience” claims that nearly half of all global waste plastic is produced in Asia.
The report blames fast moving consumer goods (FMCG) corporations like Coca-Cola, Nestle, PepsiCo, and Unilever for promoting and perpetuating the modern throwaway lifestyle through their packaged products that are designed to be used once and thrown away.
Heng said there are alternatives to single-use plastic packaging, which some zero waste stores are practising. He cites “reusable cardboard boxes, paper cushioning balls instead of bubble wrap, and food delivered in reusable tiffin-style carriers”.
He said the government’s “Roadmap Towards Zero Single Use Plastics” should be used as a positive start to a nationwide campaign for the reduction of single-use plastic waste pollution.
“However, the government should also regulate FMCG products through an extended producer responsibility that commits companies to plastic reduction and investing in reuse, refill, and alternative delivery systems,” he added.
It’s a long shot, but perhaps then “the average Malaysian” will at least have a realistic chance of reducing their own throwaway plastic pollution.