APRIL 21 — Indeed, this year’s “golden” commemoration of Earth Day’s 50th anniversary comes at a stark time, marked by a deadly pandemic sweeping across the world. 

This year, the tribute day arrives strangely attuned, when all economic activity has come to a grinding halt — providing Mother Nature much respite despite, or indeed owing to, a worldwide crisis. 

Yet as lockdowns intensify across the nation, one cannot help but ponder upon the impermanent nature of the pandemic’s consequences. 

Even as nitrogen dioxide levels reach promising new lows in industrial hubs like China, normal human activity has started to resume — slowly but surely, the cogs have begun turning, buses will begin crawling, factories churning. 

In Malaysia, our reduced air pollution levels too seem like a temporary gift — one that is sure to evaporate the moment the movement control order (MCO) is lifted.

But we take what is given to us during these moments of solitary isolation. We use the time to ponder upon the state of the world and wisely reflect on issues gone otherwise unnoticed. 

During these times, the dilemma of plastic-wrapped bayams appeared before my contemplating eye.

If there is one revelation that has come to the fore during the MCO, it is that a single trip to the grocer’s collects as much, if not more, plastic waste than single takeaway meal. 

It is a fallacy to assume that cooking at home is more eco-friendly than tapau-ing. With takeaway trips, one could choose to bring along a trusty Tupperware to eliminate the need for plastic containers. This is not, however, the case with fresh produce. 

Lining the shelves of grocery stores, all manner of vegetation, from basil to bayam, are enveloped tightly in plastic exteriors. Rows of bayam, kangkung, bendi, chilli are neatly tucked into single-use plastic wrappers as they stare back at the wanton shopper — stalks, leaves, stems, and all. Each variety is separated from the next by pockets and packets of plastic. 

Root vegetables are no less spared. To purchase a single maroon bulb of shallot will cost you one plastic sheet, lest you finagle your way out of your impending carbon footprint by attempting to use your home-brought container. 

The look on the price machine operator’s face when you point at your own container and ask “Guna ini boleh ka?” speaks volumes — for her, the ridiculousness of your request, and to the shopper, the dire state of Malaysia’s eco-awareness. 

Where have the banana leaves gone?

Whether at Ben’s Independent Grocer or Tesco, plastic consumption remains equal though the price tags themselves may vary. 

It begs the question — are there no viable alternatives to the single-use plastic wrappings that coat our leafy ingredients? In many parts of the world, foodstuffs like bread, cheese, fruits, and vegetables are all paper-wrapped-to-go. 

Our Asian counterparts of Vietnam and Thailand still use banana leaves to wrap food. In fact, so did Malaysia, once upon a time. 

The double whammy of urbanisation and desire for cheap and “clean” packaging has, however, resulted in the slow and sad decline of banana leaf wrapping. 

The plight of the banana leaf sheds light on not only our growing disregard for environmental awareness, but also casts shadow on a larger cultural erosion (but that’s a story for another day).

There must be some economical reason then, why Malaysia has chosen to lag behind in this particular area of progress, while our more developed counterparts move ahead in the battle against single-use plastics. 

Perhaps a financial incentive that beckons the use of plastic over alternative materials. And it’s true. 

In Malaysia, paper packaging costs three to four times the cost of producing plastic packaging. Barring any financial incentive, Malaysian businesses are just not ready to absorb the additional cost of biodegradable alternatives into their supply chains. 

Our next best alternatives

There are bright sparks of hope though — up-and-coming startups who successfully obtain funding from angel investors are breaking boundaries and creating new ways of conducting business. 

Paper packaging could be a new reality, albeit a pricey one. The supply and demand chain is a fine terrain resulting from collective market forces; and sometimes a novel influence is required to shift the current status quo.

The next feasible alternative appears to be oil palm tree leaves. Given its abundance in Malaysia (and the involvement of smallholders in its production), the usage of its leaves to wrap vegetables seems to be a potentially win-win situation. 

The only problem is if the uncontrolled expansion of oil palm plantations to meet this demand undermines the ecological benefits — a scenario that both policymakers and business owners must consider before embarking on its widespread use. 

The oil palm tree is also a nifty species. On top of delivering valuable commercial output, the byproducts from its processing (palm oil wastes such as kernel shells, palm oil mill effluent) are currently being explored in the manufacturing of bioplastics. 

Bioplastics is an extremely exciting area of innovation — one that Malaysia could be primed for with governmental and industrial support. 

The Malaysian Bioeconomy Development Corporation is forecasting growth in this area. 

According to their website, Malaysia could potentially grow to become a global bioplastics hub, with the right support and involvement from local SMEs. 

This sounds promising, and one can only hope that industry players heed this call for innovation while balancing the fine line between higher profits and high ideals.

With no clear and immediate solution in sight, we must then look to the next best resolution — our individual selves. Until such time where my bayams are wrapped in eco-friendly packaging, I will continue to engage in subtle spars with the lady in charge of weighing my onions, with the hope that one less plastic bag used is one foot forward for the planet.

* This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of Malay Mail.