Plastic: Fair policies, inclusive actions to address Malaysia’s plastic conundrum

This article first appeared in The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on July 18, 2022 - July 24, 2022.
Plastic: Fair policies, inclusive actions to address Malaysia’s plastic conundrumum

Plastic: Fair policies, inclusive actions to address Malaysia’s plastic conundrumum

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The world is gearing up to negotiate a legally binding global treaty to tackle plastic waste, but there are plenty of challenges that need to be addressed before Malaysia can comply with the international obligation.

Given that Malaysia ranks second in Asia for its annual per capita plastic use, implementing these measures will likely require a sizeable amount of funds, capacity building and legislative measures, as there is no uniform approach to addressing single-use plastics, say observers.

Moreover, the government and stakeholders will have to ensure that the policies and actions are fair, inclusive and sustainable before making the commitment, they add.

“The plastic recycling industry is profitable but making sure that it is properly regulated should be an underpinning of our forward strategy. But the onus needs to be on all of us to accept that the overwhelming majority of the plastic that is being dumped on our shores is generated by our consumption patterns and the inadequacy of our current waste management systems,” says Professor Tan Sri Dr Jemilah Mahmood, executive director of Sunway Centre for Planetary Health.

She points to a World Bank study that highlighted only 18% to 28% of recyclable plastic is recovered and recycled in Thailand, Malaysia and the Philippines. Most plastic packaging waste is left to pollute the environment when, in fact, it could bring value to the economy. 

“This needs to change. Transforming how we use and manage plastic is imperative and we must help countries shift to a circular economy that seeks to design products that create no waste or are reused and recycled,” says Dr Jemilah.

Tackling plastic dumping and illegal recycling

Mismanaged plastic waste and litter and inadequate infrastructure have resulted in high economic and environmental costs. According to a study conducted by the World Bank, the total value of recyclable material in Malaysia is US$1.3 billion a year. However, only 19% of these materials is recycled, resulting in income loss of around US$1 billion to US$1.1 billion annually.

Moreover, Malaysia is still dealing with waste imported into the country, which became a “dumping ground” for developed nations following China’s ban on plastic waste imports in 2018, says Mageswari Sangaralingam, senior research officer and honorary secretary of Sahabat Alam Malaysia.

“The challenge with plastic waste is that much of it cannot be recycled because of contamination, or the plastic waste is of low value and too expensive to recycle [and] requires infrastructure that is sometimes not even present in the country of import. These consignments may require labour-intensive sorting. Poorly regulated recycling operations can release toxic volatile organic compounds and toxic wastewater, while residual waste is often mismanaged and environmentally destructive,” she says.

On a brighter note, the government eventually cracked down on illegal recycling operations and announced stricter controls on plastic waste imports. Approved permits were only given to importers that meet all conditions. Only clean and homogenous plastic waste is allowed to be imported. But illegal shipments remain a problem.

“Following the announcement, imports to Malaysia dropped steeply, but illegal shipments have continued to be sent, avoiding controls. On several occasions since then, the Malaysian government returned shipping containers filled with illegal imports, such as mixed non-recyclable waste, to exporting countries,” says Mageswari.

While there are treaties like the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and Their Disposal,  there is no one international framework to address all the issues pertaining to plastic pollution.

Need to reduce overall plastic production

Regardless of the global initiative, the Ministry of Environment and Water has outlined the country’s intention to eliminate single-use plastics — that are not recyclable, reusable, compostable or that contain hazardous chemicals — among others in the Roadmap Towards Zero Single-Use Plastics 2018-2030 and the Malaysia Sustainable Plastic Alliance in 2019.

In a 2021 letter to the Consumers’ Association of Penang sighted by The Edge, the Ministry of Environment and Water expressly stated that Malaysia’s position in regard to the global agreement must consider enforcement capacity, existing gaps in legislation, jurisdiction and governance issues of the responsible institution, along with direction and constraints of the industry.

Mageswari believes that plastic pollution can only be tackled by reducing the overall amount of plastic production and addressing the full life cycle of plastics.

“It should include provisions to control compounds, additives and harmful substances, as well as intentionally added microplastics. As the mandate underlies the importance of promoting sustainable design, the treaty must ensure that hazardous chemicals are eliminated from plastic production and that plastics with hazardous chemicals are not recycled,” says Mageswari.

She adds that the plastic reduction targets must focus on phasing out unnecessary single-use plastics and unrecyclable plastic.

“Plastic reduction strategies should include addressing the toxic burden of plastic by phasing out dangerous additives and fillers from recyclable plastic and establishing a fund for the remediation of toxic pollution associated with plastic.”

For this to happen, funds need to be made available for research to design sustainable solutions and substitute plastics with safer options, and investment to scale up the reuse and refill system infrastructure.

Dr Jemilah adds that the negotiations between countries will require “ground to be given and compromises made”.

“(This is) all the more reason for us to take individual and collective responsibility based on evidence because, quite frankly, the facts are blindingly obvious. The Malaysian Plastics Sustainability Roadmap is solid. Let us implement it and be an example to other countries of what can be done. To the government, I hope the incentives and disincentives will be in place. More importantly, [there should be] enforcement of the latter.”