Perspective: 20-sen charge not deterring public from using plastic bags

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Consumers’ overdependence on plastics is the main reason they are willing to pay the 20-sen charge imposed by retailers on each plastic bag instead of bringing their own recyclable bags. — Bernama photo

KUALA LUMPUR (June 6): It is quite apparent that the move to charge shoppers 20-sen for each plastic bag has not done much to educate the public on the nation’s efforts to eliminate single-use plastics.

Statistics show plastic waste continues to dominate landfills in various parts of the country. In Kuala Lumpur and Putrajaya, for example, some 101,949 tonnes of plastic waste ended up in landfills in 2021. It comprised 13 per cent of the 772,349 tonnes of garbage generated by the two federal territories.

Last year, Kuala Lumpur and Putrajaya’s plastic waste rose to 210,966 tonnes out of the total 796,795 tonnes of garbage produced.

Consumers’ overdependence on plastics is the main reason they are willing to pay the 20-sen charge imposed by retailers on each plastic bag instead of bringing their own recyclable bags.

This is evident in Selangor which was one of the first few states to charge customers for the use of plastic bags since 2017 when the government embarked on campaigns and introduced strategies to discourage the use of single-use plastics.

In 2020, Selangor collected a relatively high sum of RM6.6 million from the payment imposed on plastic bags and in 2021, the amount went up to RM8.5 million. In the first six months of last year, the collection stood at RM4.8 million.

With shoppers willing to pay the 20-sen charge, the Ministry of Natural Resources, Environment and Climate Change is facing an uphill battle to realise its objective of eliminating the use of plastic bags by 2025.

Last month, its minister Nik Nazmi Nik Ahmad said the government is targeting zero use of plastic bags at all premises and sectors of trade and commerce in the country by 2025.

A recent random survey of sundry shops, food outlets and other business premises by Bernama found that when it came to the sale and packaging of food items, the use of light, durable and cheap plastic bags was the choice of traders and consumers.

Easy and convenient

A 67-year-old stallholder in Batu Caves, Selangor, who only wanted to be identified as Mek Yah Rahman, told Bernama she prefers to use plastic bags to pack food as she found them more convenient and economical.

“These plastic bags come in different sizes, so it’s easy for me to use them to pack kuih or nasi lemak. Many petty traders like me use plastic bags as they are cheaper than paper bags.

“And, we also don’t impose a charge of 20 sen on the plastic bags. But we will be forced to comply if the government prohibits the use of plastic,” said Mek Yah who has been running her stall for nearly 10 years.

Bernama also observed that most customers in the area concerned don’t bring their own recyclable bags or food containers, preferring instead to use plastic bags.

The same situation prevailed at the wet markets, pasar malam, food truck sites and sales carnivals surveyed by Bernama.

According to Azreen Samsuri, 22, a worker at a convenience store here, people are generally aware they need to bring their own bags but it is their indifference that has become problematic.

He added that customers did not mind paying 20-sen for each plastic bag they use.

“… maybe some of them feel it’s bothersome to bring their own bags. However, I have noticed that most of our customers only request for plastic bags if they buy a lot of things or wet produce,” he said.

Hairulnizam Sidek, 30, an employee at a logistics firm in Shah Alam, Selangor, said although he is aware plastic waste is harmful to the environment, he sometimes forgets to bring his own bags.

“Sometimes after work, I stop at a shop to buy some necessities but since I don’t keep any shopping bag in my car, I’m forced to use plastic bags,” he said.

Oceans dumping ground for plastic

Disregarding the government’s call to put a stop to the use of single-use plastics will be disastrous for the environment especially oceans which, claim experts, are turning into the largest landfills for plastics.

Head of the Nanoarchitectonic Lab at Universiti Tenaga Nasional Associate Prof Dr Halina Misran told Bernama that in the last 10 years, only 19.5 per cent of plastic waste generated worldwide was recycled while 25 per cent was burned and the rest dumped into the sea.

“Malaysians on average use 300 plastic bags a year each and an estimated 30,000 tonnes of plastics end up in our seas every year,” she said, adding that studies have also shown Asian countries accounted for the vast bulk of plastic waste found in oceans, with the figure standing at 80.99 per cent in 2019.

In 2019 alone, 9.54 billion tonnes of plastic was generated worldwide and the figure is expected to go up along with economic progress and industrial development.

Halina said plastic is a material that does not decompose and, as such, it is the biggest contributor to environmental pollution. If not managed properly, plastic waste can pose health risks for people.

Since the launch of the No Plastic campaign in Malaysia in 2018, only four states – Selangor, Penang, Johor and Negeri Sembilan – are at the forefront of the initiative, with Selangor and Penang being the most active participants.

Penang set its plastic-free campaign in motion as early as 2009 by imposing a 20-sen charge on every plastic bag. In January 2021, the rate was hiked to RM1 from Thursday to Sunday. No plastic bags are provided to consumers from Monday to Wednesday.

Halina, meanwhile, suggested that the government offer incentives such as tax reductions to manufacturing and consumer industries involved in plastic recycling activities as well as businesses that support its zero-plastic policy.

“Over the next two years, there must be continuous efforts to raise awareness of the plastic issue. The government must, in particular, engage all social media and mass media platforms so that everyone plays a part in ensuring the success of its objective (to eliminate the use of plastic bags by 2025),” she stressed.  — Bernama