Saturday, January 28

Plastic straw ban: Yea or nay


Alternatives such as stainless steel straws are considered more environmentally friendly than plastic straws.

Alternatives such as stainless steel straws are considered more environmentally friendly than plastic straws.

EFFECTIVE Jan 1, 2020, plastic straws will be given to consumers on request while awareness campaigns will continue to be conducted throughout 2019 to enlighten the population at large that continued use of plastic straws can adversely affect the environment and public health.

Energy, Science, Technology, Environment and Climate Change Minister Yeo Bee Yin said this initiative is in line with the ‘Road Map towards Zero Single-Use Plastic 2018-2030’ to do away with single-use plastic items by 2030.

Under the roadmap, the ministry will take a phased, evidence-based and holistic approach to address pollution issues related to single-use plastic materials in the country as part of the UN Sustainable Development Goals to promote viable development by balancing economic growth and environmental protection.

China, the world’s worst ocean polluter, had informed the World Trade Organisation in July 2017 of its intention to ban 24 different types of waste from January 2018 as part of its efforts to curb plastic pollution.

Yeo has said it is not her ministry’s intention to kill off local plastic manufacturers but, rather, to help them adopt a more eco-friendly practice through the use of green technologies to protect the environment.

The Federal Territories of Kuala Lumpur, Putrajaya and Labuan have experienced first-hand the impact of the plastic straw ban in these places, starting Jan 1, 2019, with Federal Territories Ministry secretary general Datuk Seri Adnan Mohd Ikhsan warning of serious consequences over regulation infringement. Businesses found using plastic straws in these cities this year run the risk of being closed down.

Some food outlets in Sarawak are already promoting the ‘straw-on-request’ campaign.

Single-use plastics

Single-use plastics are designed to be thrown away after just one use. They are usually used for packaging and carrier bags.

Only 9 per cent of the nine billion tonnes of the world’s plastic is recycled with most ending up in landfills, dump sites, or the open environment.

According to the Natural Resources and Environmental Board Sarawak website, Sarawak has 46 active landfills with a land area of 396.2 ha.

Nearly 2,107 metric tons of municipal solid waste is disposed of daily in the landfills. Municipal solid waste consists of everyday items like product packaging, appliances, and bottles.

Local Government and Housing Minister Datuk Dr Sim Kui Hian pointed out at a recent function that maintaining a landfill is costly for the Sarawak government, citing the estimated RM10 million spent on rehabilitating a landfill in Sarawak.

Besides, finding a suitable new area for the landfill is a major challenge as residents do not want a dumpsite close to their neighbourhood.

“Waste has to be transported by trucks more than 100km away from the city area just to be thrown away, causing traffic jams in the process,” Dr Sim said in a speech to mark Environmental Awareness Week 2018 at the Kuching South City Council auditorium.


Brief history of plastic straws

The invention of straws dates back about 5,000 years to the Ancient Sumerians civilisation where royals had been depicted drinking beer through cylindrical tubes.

Paper straws began to appear during the 19th century and were invented by a paper cigarette holder manufacturer, Marvin Chester Stone and further improved by Joseph Friedman in the 1930s to add pliability to the straws.

As plastic was cheaper and more durable to produce, mass production of plastic straws began after World War Two as plastic manufacturers started turning to the consumer market.


Worldwide movement

The anti-straw movement started after a Texas A&M graduate student Christine Figgener and her companions came across a Ridley sea turtle with a long plastic straw lodged in its nostrils.

A video titled ‘Sea turtle with straw up its nostril – No to plastic straws’ has garnered 33 million views on YouTube.

As a consequence, major global business corporations such as Starbucks, McDonalds, KFC, Alaska Airlines, American Airlines, and Marriott hotels have decided to slowly phase out the use of plastic straws.

In the UK, McDonalds will follow suit in all its 1,361 outlets this year, while Starbucks is experimenting with strawless lids for its beverages as a part of the global sustainable environment movement.

As for Britain’s royal household, Queen Elizabeth II has banned plastic straws and bottles at the royal estates in an endeavour to initiate a nationwide roll back on plastic usage.

All 84 Singapore KFC outlets ceased using plastic straws, effective June 20, 2018, in line with their go-green initiative.

McDonald’s Malaysia local operating partner and managing director Azmir Jaafar has assured all McDonald’s restaurants are adhering to the federal government’s decision to ban plastic straws throughout the country.

“We’re now doing consumer-testing in many restaurants regarding the no-straw campaign whereby straws are given upon request,” he said at the launching of a remodelled McDonald’s restaurant.

McDonald’s restaurants in the Klang Valley and Penang have reportedly started the ‘Say No to Straws’ campaign.

Kuching South City Council has also embarked on a campaign to ensure all major supermarkets under its jurisdiction ban the use of single-use plastic bags during weekends.


Plastic pollution

As a global plastic industry player, Malaysia has over 1,300 plastic manufacturers and was the fourth largest exporter of plastic products among Association of South East Asia Nations (Asean) in 2017.

Malaysia’s exports amounted to RM30 billion in 2016 – with 2.26 million metric tonnes of resin utilised to produce plastic.

According to Earth Day Network, Southeast Asian countries have been the worst in plastic waste management on a global scale. Malaysia is ranked eighth, producing an average of 0.26 million metric tons (MMT) of plastic waste that made its way into the oceans in 2010.

More than half of the eight MMT of plastic found in the oceans originated from five countries – China  Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam – due to significant increases in their Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and improvements to their living standards.

Ever since China announced the ban on imports of ‘foreign garbage’ in July 2017, Malaysia has brought in around 450,000 to 500,000 tonnes of plastic scraps in 2017 compared with 288,000 tonnes in 2016, according to Bureau of International Recycling (BIR) figures.

With Malaysia on the way to becoming the top dumping ground for foreign plastic garbage, Federal Housing and Local Government Minister Zuraida Kamaruddin had announced on Oct 26, 2018, that all imported plastic scraps which had been contaminated would be permanently banned while clean plastic could still be imported for the next three years under strict criteria.


Saving the planet

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch (GPGP), halfway between Hawaii and California, has the largest accumulation of ocean plastic in the world, covering an area of about 1.6 million sq km.

Notably, GPGP is about 13 times the land size of Sarawak and an estimated 80,000 tonnes of plastic float in it – equivalent to 500 jumbo jets.

While restricting the use of plastic straws is a noble initiative, the effectiveness of enforcing newly-enacted no-straw regulations remains a challenge due to the low recycling rate, lack of cost incentives and environmentally friendly alternatives, as well as the absence of a uniform policy framework.

Two contributory drivers of ocean plastic debris are uncollected waste and poor waste-management system.

According to Ocean Conservancy, more than 80 per cent of ocean plastic debris are from land-based sources and as such, countries should improve their waste collection rate to over 80 per cent by ensuring minimum leakage in the waste management system so as to reduce global ocean plastic debris by half in 2025.

It is believed banning plastic straws will lead to the general public adopting a more environment-friendly lifestyle. Statistically, plastic straws comprise just 0.025 per cent of the eight MMT of plastic waste the world dumps into the oceans.


Mixed reactions

A survey by thesundaypost found the no-straw initiative has received a mixed response from the public.

A middle-age drinks trader, who only wished to be identified as Chiam, said the new regulations would not drastically affect his business.

“When I first heard about the initiative, I remember paper straws have been around since my younger days before plastic straws were introduced,” he said.

A customer, who only wished to be identified as Lim, thought otherwise.

“Imagine drinking from the glass instead of sipping through the straw. For me, cleanliness of the glass is a big concern. I find it very unhygienic drinking from the glass,” he said.


Now or never

To promote the ‘Say No To Plastic’ campaign, Yeo has come up with a video titled ‘Let’s Break up with Single-Use Plastic’, aimed at urging her staff to take the lead in reducing the use of plastic.

All states are also required to impose a minimum pollution charge of 20 sen on plastic bags by the end of 2021. A legal framework for single-use plastic articles will be introduced the following year.

The use of plastic in things such as food packaging, cutlery, plastic film, food containers, and cotton buds might be soon regulated under a new government initiative to phase out single-use plastic.

While the scale of environmental degradation from plastic straws (with a quarter-inch diameter) pales against the overarching climate change scenario, it, nonetheless, will help inculcate a more environment-friendly public mentality to support the government’s plastic straw reduction campaign.

Dr Sim had posed this question, “Can you imagine the number of plastic straws we can do without if 90 per cent of the people say they don’t need them?”

He added, “Never underestimate a small action.”

Ever since the anti-straw movement has gained traction, Marvin Stone has been the only paper straw producer in the US. The company invented paper straws in the 19th century and it now manufactures Aardvark straws.

The demand for paper straws had gone up by 5,000 per cent in 2017 compared to 2016 and a check on the company’s website indicates 35 weeks are needed to adequately produce straws to meet the overwhelming global demand.

And for customers insisting on drinking with straws, alternatives are available such as bamboo, glass, stainless steel, paper, and silicone straws.