Gone plastic-free for a day...plastic won 4-2...What's next?

17 Dec 2023 07:00am
Pix for illustration purpose only. - FILE PIX by Photo 123rf
Pix for illustration purpose only. - FILE PIX by Photo 123rf

KUALA LUMPUR - Sunday, the day my colleague and I vowed to be plastic-free, did not start well, at least for me.

For one thing, I had forgotten I was going to be plastic-free and I did the first thing I usually do upon waking up. I checked my mobile phone - made of a mix of plastic, aluminum, iron, lithium, gold and copper - for messages and the latest news. It took a few minutes but as soon as my brain kicked in, I froze.

The objective of this exercise is to see how well we can survive without using plastic. As I had just amply demonstrated, the answer is, "Not well.”

A few seconds in, and I had already violated my vow. Before embarking on this challenge, I told myself not to use or touch anything with plastic in it if it weren’t for medical or health purposes. I knew it was going to be difficult but I thought I would have lasted longer.

Environmental experts and activists already told me it was going to be impossible to give up plastic. But there is a difference between being told something versus experiencing it. I had to see the reality of it as plastic - convenient, cheap to produce, durable and practically immortal - has become a part of our lives so much that we do not even think about it.

I facepalmed once I remembered and readjusted the parameters of the experiment. The rules were: Go plastic-free as much as possible. Find alternatives for every plastic item. From a plastic-free day, it looked like it was going to be a plastic-free day with asterisks, lots of them.

Now, I had to add another exemption: if you already broke the vow by using a plastic item, you can keep using it as needed.

And I needed to use the phone for work anyway. I had agreed to make videos of my day, thinking I could get my husband to do the recording. It would not have violated the agreement as my husband would be the one touching and using the phone, not me. My husband sighed in relief when he realised he was not getting roped into one of my capers.

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My colleague, Amirul Sajadi, managed to hang on a bit longer than I did, using his phone later in the day. He woke up plastic-free, all prepared to record the day’s activities with a notebook and pencil.

"It’s not that I don’t want to use a pen but most pens use plastic and it’s difficult to find plastic-free pens. The best alternative is a wooden pencil,” he said.

Score: Plastic=1, Amirul=1, Me=0


Next up is using the toilet, showering and grooming. The toilet has plastic, which is another violation but it is something that has no alternatives, save for swapping the standard toilet seat and lid for a wooden one or living alone somewhere with a pail and a shovel.

"The moment I stepped into the bathroom, that was when I felt the real challenge had started,” said Amirul. I concurred.

I fared better in this part since I had prepared plastic-free alternatives. We both got plastic-free toothbrushes made of bamboo but Amirul’s toothpaste is in plastic packaging. His body wash and shampoo are in plastic containers as well but they are reused while the liquid contents are refilled.

As for me, I already had some plastic-free items in my showering and grooming routine. Everything else, I bought from a zero-waste store in Subang Jaya, Selangor. My toothpaste consists of chewable grey tablets shaped like small flowers costing RM16.20 and comes in a chicken essence glass bottle repurposed as a toothpaste container.

I thought the bamboo toothbrush did not clean well though it was likely a biased judgment as I was not used to it. As for the toothpaste, it tasted like a mix of mint and dirt. The chewed mush stuck to one tooth, which I had to brush hard just so it would spread to the rest of the mouth. The spit was ashy grey, which freaked me out a bit but that was something else I would have to get used to.

Part of my daily routine is also using a face moisturiser. Luckily, mine was already in a glass and metal container. Only the protective cover was plastic, something I easily got rid of without touching it by tipping the jar over.

My hairbrush was made of wood and rubber, costing me RM25.90. I could not wear makeup since the products usually come in plastic packaging. But I had eyeliner pencils encased in wood from before, and plastic-free tinted lip balm, which is RM28, that I used on my eyes, cheeks and lips. The effects were really subtle. No one will be accusing me of being a clown anytime soon.

Score: Plastic=2, Amirul=1, Me=1

As I am "half-blind”, I had the choice of using glasses or contact lenses, both with plastic in them. I chose contact lenses. Although there is a medical exemption to using plastic in the challenge, I still felt a bit guilty about this.

I knew I was going to fail the clothes part of the challenge, however. While Amirul put on a 100 percent pure cotton shirt and pants, I had to wear a bra made of nylon, which itself is made from plastic polymers.

I had the option to go plastic-free without searching the ends of the earth for a plastic-free bra but neither I nor the public wanted my "girls” to swing free. And since I already violated the plastic-free clothes part of the challenge, I might as well go for the gold and top my bra off with gym clothes made of polyester and nylon.

Score: Plastic=3, Amirul=2, Me=1


Another parameter of the challenge was to do our normal daily activities while remaining plastic-free. For me, it was Sunday lunch with my parents. The food was great as usual and luckily, my mother is the sort of person who uses ceramic plates, glassware and stainless steel cutlery.

After lunch, my mother asked if I wanted to take leftovers home.

"Any cardboard containers?” I asked hopefully. My mother said no.

I only had myself to blame. I could have prepared for leftovers by getting plastic-free and biodegradable food containers from companies like Circlepac Malaysia and Team Recycler Malaysia.

A Circlepac representative told me via WhatsApp that their products are available for consumers but only with a minimum order of 100 pieces. Because it can only be bought in bulk, the upfront price may be too much for the public. A bundle of 700ml Bamboo Square Bowl with a T-lock Lid costs RM84, for example.

As for Amirul, he brought glass containers to get food at a food truck. He told me people gave him weird looks as he proffered his containers. Some asked him why, requiring him to explain the challenge.

"It’s really hard to live without plastic. It has become part of our daily lives," said restaurant owner Siti Salbiah Sulaiman, 40, upon hearing his response.

Score: Plastic=3, Amirul=3, Me=2

By 3 pm, Amirul said he was exhausted trying to keep away from plastic. I was too but wanted to keep trying. I went grocery shopping but almost everything on my shopping list involved plastic, mostly as packaging. In the end, I just bought a few drinks in metal cans and a bunch of celery sans plastic bag, which I placed in my old canvas shopping bags. I discovered a plastic-free initiative at the grocery store, which is a refillable service for milk using glass bottles instead of plastic containers.

Alas, I am lactose intolerant.

I used my phone to pay for the groceries, so I didn’t break the agreement further. Ironically, if I had used a debit or credit card, I would have added a new violation.

And since I didn’t have leftovers for dinner, I stopped by a restaurant that uses paper containers and paper bags for takeaways.

At about 10 pm, I decided to take public transportation home. I sort of cheated, giving my husband the shopping bags to take home in the car. Paying for the ticket presented a conundrum. On one hand, there is the plastic Touch n Go card, which is rechargeable and reusable. Plastic = bad but reusable = good. On the other hand, the paper ticket is made of paper but the magnetic stripe is made of plastic. Single use = bad.

I chose to use my Touch n Go card. But do I give myself a point for being sustainable even though I had to use plastic?

I decided using the car nullified my good intentions. It was also the end of the experiment, upon which I deducted one point from Amirul for not lasting a day.

Score: Plastic=4, Amirul=2, Me=2


The big winner here is obviously plastic and the plastics industry. It is shocking the amount of plastic we use daily, often incidentally.

Current initiatives to reduce plastic waste, like substituting plastic bags at supermarket checkout counters with canvas bags, will barely do anything to curb plastic pollution if we do not also cut down on the amount of plastic we use to wrap our food and contain our household supplies.

I started the day aiming for plastic-free. I ended the day with zero-waste goals.

Federal Territory Solid Waste and Public Cleansing Management Corporation (SWCorp) director Ummi Kalthum Shuib said as long as there are humans, there will be waste. The trick is to reduce the amount of waste generated by reducing, reusing and recycling, also known as the zero-waste lifestyle.

"More shops and businesses should adopt sustainability concepts and work in tandem in solving waste problems by encouraging reusing, reducing and recycling (products). Discounts can also be given to customers who bring their own bottles, containers, tiffin carriers, reusable bags,” she said.

Malaysia has options to help reduce the amount of plastic waste but plastic-free and low-waste stores and products are limited.

I also discovered that being plastic-free is much easier if you are a man and have money.

So what’s next? Going fully plastic-free may be impossible, but founder of Lips Carpenter plastic-free lip balm Law Yifon said reducing plastic pollution is still possible by replacing some common plastic items with plastic-free options.

She added it would take some time for the concept to become mainstream, however.

"(Take) baby steps,” she said. - BERNAMA