Plastic bags for the environment — Noor Amin Ahmad

JANUARY 13 — The plastic bags ban is fast becoming a lightning rod issue, not only because Malaysians these days are more environmentally aware, but the issue is also something that people can easily relate to. It is easy for most people to admit that rubbish, especially in the form of plastic, is one of the main contributors to environmental pollution — even if they themselves are among those undisciplined ones when it comes to throwing rubbish at its proper places!

Noticeably, there have been increasing quibbles arising from the Selangor government’s “No Plastic Bag Day”; which for the past several years have been held every Saturdays but now extended to every day of the week starting from 1 Jan 2017.

Hence, it is not a new policy to begin with. Not just in Selangor, various cities, states and countries in the world have been actively taking action against the scourge of plastic bags. For example:

§  Denmark introduced a special tax on retailers for giving out plastic bags;

§  Ireland started imposing 15 euro cent back in 2002 and it has been increasing since then;

§  Italy banned the distribution of non-biodegradable plastic bags;

§  Germany made it compulsory for all stores in their country providing plastic bags to pay a recycling tax;

§  More and more states and cities in United States ban plastic bags;

§  China, Australia, France and several others already taking some actions;

§  In Malaysia, Penang already had implemented a plastic-free policy for retailers; Malacca had ban petroleum-based plastic bags; Perak, Johor and even the Federal Territories are also taking some similar measure at different stages.

All these are being done in the name of preserving our environment. An often-quoted justification for banning plastic bags is because “it takes decades for a plastic bag to decay into the earth”. It is clearly a man-made source of pollution. So, why do some people make such a big fuss about it?

There are actually several valid arguments for our policymakers’ considerations:

Economic impact

Immediately, when people have to pay 20 sen to get a plastic bag, what they see is “you have to pay to use it”, instead of “you are no longer able to use it”, which mean the argument for environmental preservation is now totally out of the equation. To make it even more emotional, the policy is actually saying “you can only use it if you are willing to pay more” (which implies that the policy is now favouring people with more money compared to those whom have-less or the have-nots).

Who will benefit from this collection of millions (or perhaps billions dollars) of the multiplied 20 sen? To many, this is not clear. To the buyer, the seller benefits more than him. Even the hardware store doesn’t sell a plastic bag for 20 sen! Or if the money goes to the state government (as I am referring this to the case in Selangor, the state I am living in), still they have to pay more.

Let’s say they are buying some goods for RM20 and have to pay 20 sen for a plastic bag, that’s mean they have to pay one more per cent ‘tax’ to what they bought. If we complained so much about the 6 per cent of Good and Service Tax (GST), adding one more per cent to it doesn’t help people to feel better.

To make things worse, some environmental activists asked the state government to raise the price of plastic bag so that consumer will think it is not worth to use it and will change to another alternatives.

Perhaps, we should compare the data on whether the amount of waste going into landfills is being reduced significantly by bans and taxes of plastic bags.

Environmental friendly

Yes, to many whom support the ban of plastic bags, other alternatives are surely more environmentally friendly. Sounds good. But we should really ask, is it the case?

Let us look into the issue by using the life-cycle assessment (LCA) technique. It is basically a technique to assess environmental impacts associated with all cycles of a product’s life from raw material extraction through processing, manufacturing, distribution, use, repair and maintenance, and disposal or recycling. It broadens the conventional definition of environmental impact by taking into account all energy, material inputs and related consequences such as climate change, smog, water pollution, land use and more.

A study carried out by the Environmental Agency in United Kingdom has compared seven types of carrier bags, designed for a multiple uses. The impacts from the number of bags required to carry one month’s shopping and the number of times each were used to reduce its global warming potential to below that for conventional HDPE plastic bag or lightweight carrier made from high-density polyethylene (HDPE) were considered. Other impacts, such as resource depletion, acidification, eutrophication, human toxicity, fresh water, marine aquatic, terrestrial eco-toxicity and photochemical oxidation (smog formation) were also considered.

What are among of their key findings?

Despite common misconceptions, plastic bags are one of the most environmentally friendly options at checkout and alternatives which were seemingly “greener”, such as reusable cotton bags, actually placed a greater burden on the environment as they require more natural resources to produce and transport. To be precise:

  1. Standard reusable cotton grocery bags must be reused 131 times “to ensure that they have lower global warming potential than” a plastic bag used only once;
  2. It would take 7.5 years of using the same cloth bag (assuming one grocery trip per week) before it’s a better option for the environment than a plastic bag reused three times.
  3. The paper, LDPE (low-density polyethylene), non-woven polypropylene (PP) and cotton bags should be reused at least 3, 4, 11 and 131 times respectively to ensure that they have lower global warming potential than conventional HDPE carrier bags that are not reused.

As for the conclusion, we can safely say that actual environmental impact of carrier bags is dominated by resource use and production stages. Regardless of what type of bags, the key to reduce the impact is to reuse it as many times and as responsibly as possible.

I am not questioning the well-intentioned policy to save the environment. But based on these findings, I would like to propose to all states and federal territories in the country to apply the LCA technique and revise some if not all of their environmental policies accordingly.

* Noor Amin Ahmad is executive director of the Institute for Leadership and Development Studies (LEAD). He holds a bachelor’s degree in Forestry Science from University Putra Malaysia.

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

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