PETALING JAYA: Environmental activists have urged the government to step up its campaign against littering and the waste of sundry items that Malaysians typically use on a daily basis.
They say the initiative against single-use plastic items that was announced last September does not appear to have been effective and may have even added to the pollution of the environment.
They point to the proliferation of alternatives with higher levels of biodegradability and allege that such items are freely discarded as trash.
A recent Google search for “paper straws, Malaysia” yielded an impressive number of suppliers. Similar results were obtained in searches for other environment-friendly items such as wooden cutlery, biodegradable cups, plates or containers and straws made of bamboo or sugarcane fibre.
Several eateries in the Klang Valley have replaced plastic drinking straws with sugarcane fibre straws, which are said to be biodegradable in six months.
One activist, Tak Nak Straw co-founder Mareena Kerschott-Yahya, acknowledged that the alternatives were more environment-friendly than plastic, but she said their use might be worsening the waste problem because people would feel less guilty about discarding biodegradable items.
“Unfortunately,” she said, “we are a nation deeply rooted in the takeaway habit.”
She added that the government should be encouraging people to use their own containers when buying takeaway food.
One of Tak Nak Straw’s programmes is to advocate the use of discardables only when “absolutely necessary”.
Mareena noted that bamboo straws produced by Orang Asli were available only when bamboo was available and she said the straws would thus be on the market only when they were needed.
She said this was good because “what we are doing is to help the Orang Asli, not to commercialise the trade”.
Faizal Parish, director of the Global Environment Centre, agreed that the campaign against waste would be futile if Malaysians were to simply substitute one single-use product with another.
“It’s best to eliminate straws altogether or, if necessary, to use only metal straws,” he said.
He urged the government to impose a fee on the use of paper straws as well as paper bags.
“Everyone can live without straws, and there are plenty of alternatives for paper or plastic bags,” he said. “While encouraging sustainable alternatives is good, banning plastics alone could enable other unsustainable options to take over.
“When styrofoam food containers were banned, for example, they were replaced with throwaway plastic ones, not biodegradable ones as these were too expensive.”
He noted that edible food wrappings made from algae are available in Indonesia.
Anthony Tan, a former executive director of the Malaysian Centre for Environment, Technology and Development, noted the availability of biodegradable plastics and said these were only 5% to 10% degradable.
He called for a change of thinking among Malaysians so that they would place the importance of their needs above their wants.
He said: “Do we really need straws? Or is it a want?
“Instead of asking for a plastic bag when buying a small item, why can’t we adopt the Japanese practice of taking along a cloth that can be used for wrapping and also as a carrier?
“Instead of using disposable utensils, is it really so difficult to bring along our own forks, spoons or chopsticks?”