Plastic bag usage still high in Malaysia

19 Sep 2023 09:09am
Pix for illustration purpose only. - FILE PIX by Bernama
Pix for illustration purpose only. - FILE PIX by Bernama

KUALA LUMPUR - ‘No plastic bag? Okay then, I’ll take my business elsewhere.’ This appears to be the attitude of many consumers who don’t carry their own reusable bags when they go shopping.

One such consumer posted his experience on Facebook recently. On learning from the cashier that the popular Klang Valley supermarket he was shopping at did not provide plastic bags to their customers, he left all the items he wanted to buy on the counter, lying to the cashier he left his wallet in his car.

He showed no remorse for his action and even incited his friends to do the same thing he did, saying "stingy businesses” like the supermarket he went to "must be taught a lesson”.

Another consumer, who identified herself as Hanie, also aired her dissatisfaction on social media over the no plastic bag policy. She said she came across an elderly man who was forced to carry the more than 10 items he had bought in his hands.

"Even if you want to buy a plastic bag, there is none available. It was pitiful to see the uncle, who bought over 10 items but was not given a plastic bag, trying to get on his motorcycle which was already loaded with things... so where was he going to put the things he had just bought?” she asked.

It is obvious from these postings that some people are still oblivious to the government’s objective of banning the use of plastic bags for retail purposes in all business sectors by 2025, which is just two years away.

Whether it is due to a lack of awareness or failure of the authorities to disseminate the no-plastic message more widely, the reliance on plastic bags at retail outlets is still high.

Campaign ineffective?

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According to Solid Waste and Public Cleansing Management Corporation (SWCorp) data, out of the 772,349 tonnes of waste generated by Kuala Lumpur and Putrajaya residents in 2021, some 101,949 tonnes or 13 percent comprised plastic waste.

The Malaysian Plastics Manufacturers Association, meanwhile, has estimated that Malaysians use nine billion plastic bags every year, which raises the question of the effectiveness of the no plastic bag campaign the government has been conducting for some time now.

The dean of the Faculty of Human Sciences at Universiti Pendidikan Sultan Idris (UPSI) Associate Prof Dr Mohd Hairy Ibrahim said it is clear that the no plastic bag campaign has yet to produce encouraging results. He attributed this to the campaign not being carried out in a comprehensive and competent manner as well as the lack of cooperation among business premises.

"There are customers who still rely on plastic bags... and the lack of synergy among business premises has led to some of them still providing plastic bags at 20 sen each. Some (retail outlets) already started (preparing for the ban on plastic bags) early by not at all providing any plastic bag,” he told Bernama.

He said the availability of plastic bags at certain shopping outlets is one of the reasons consumers have failed to cultivate the practice of bringing along their own reusable bags when they go shopping.

Mohd Hairy, who is also a lecturer at the Department of Geography and the Environment, UPSI, said what he finds frustrating is the attitude of certain business premises, particularly grocery stores, that offer plastic bags at no extra cost purely to retain their customers.

A random survey of about 100 shoppers at major supermarkets in Seremban, Negeri Sembilan, by Bernama showed less than 10 of them brought their own shopping bags, indicating the retailers are still providing free plastic bags to their customers.

According to Mohd Hairy, one of the factors for this is probably the fact that some state governments and local councils are not being proactive in monitoring the use of plastic bags at business premises.

"The practice of bringing our own (reusable) bags is still at a very low level. So, efforts must be intensified to disseminate (information) on the (government’s) plastic-free policy on various platforms including social media and by having integrated collaboration among the relevant agencies.

"If nothing is done now to intensify the campaign, I’m uncertain if consumers will be ready to give up the use of plastic bags by 2025,” he added.

Replace plastic bags

Selangor, Penang, Johor and Negeri Sembilan are among the states that have been at the forefront of the government’s no plastic campaign that took off in 2011 to address the issue of plastic pollution. The first initiative under the campaign was asking retail premises all over the nation not to provide plastic bags free of charge every Saturday and encouraging consumers to bring their own shopping bags.

Last month, Natural Resources, Environment and Climate Change Minister Nik Nazmi Nik Ahmad launched the ‘Madani Reusable Bag and No Plastic Bag’ Campaign. He was quoted as saying the campaign was already being carried out in stages at all fixed business premises since 2022 and will go on until 2025 when the ban on the use of plastic bags takes effect.

Mohd Hairy, meanwhile, called on plastic bag manufacturers to produce biodegradable bags that can decay naturally.

He also advised corporate companies to include the distribution of recyclable bags to the community as part of their corporate social responsibility initiative, saying the gesture will educate the people to stop using plastic bags.

"The government must take action by issuing a directive in advance to the factories concerned to switch to producing (environmentally-friendly) bags and packaging that suit the needs of consumers, whether it is for carrying wet items or dry items.

"Various other alternatives must be created to replace plastic bags. The government needs to have comprehensive discussions with the industry, starting from factories that supply plastic bags to businesses and customers,” he said.

Among the retail businesses that no longer provide plastic bags is 99 Speed Mart Sdn Bhd which runs a chain of minimarkets nationwide.

Speed Mart, which implemented the no plastic bag policy on May 1 this year, told Bernama in a statement that the decision not to provide plastic bags to customers was in line with the Madani Reusable Bag and No Plastic Bag Campaign.

Premises must be flexible

Meanwhile, Federation of Malaysian Consumers Associations (FOMCA) deputy secretary-general Nur Asyikin Aminuddin said consumers should not make an issue out of the non-availability of plastic bags at business outlets, saying it is time for them to change their mentality and cease using plastic bags in their daily lives.

"The step towards discontinuing the use of plastic bags must start now if we want to create a more sustainable environment. However, we can’t let customers (who don’t bring their own bags) carry their purchases... there must be alternatives for them, but they must be reminded to bring their own bags next time,” she said.

Penang-based environmental organisation Pertubuhan Lestari Khazanah Alam Pulau Pinang president Zikrullah Ismail concurred, saying the no plastic bag campaign must be carried out in a rational and practical manner in order not to inconvenience the community.

He said environmental sustainability should be approached by striking a balance among the 3Ps, namely people, planet and profit, pointing out that the plastic-free policy will fail if the aspirations of any single aspect of the 3Ps are not met.

"If consumers reject it (plastic-free policy), it’s because the initiative is not being implemented in a practical way,” he said, adding that making biodegradable bags available at all business premises and imposing a reasonable charge for them will resolve the problem faced by consumers who don’t bring their own bags. - BERNAMA