The State of the Nation: Single-use plastics ban stirs concern among the manufacturers

This article first appeared in The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on May 27, 2019 - June 02, 2019.
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BIODEGRADABLE plastics cost four to five times more than conventional plastics, apart from the fact that they have limited usage at present, according to Malaysian Plastics Manufacturers Association (MPMA) president Datuk Lim Kok Boon.

Currently, the price of polyethylene — the most common plastic in the world — is hovering at US$1,050 to US$1,100 per tonne.

The plastic sector is important to the Malaysian economy, generating nearly RM31 billion in revenue last year.

So, when the Ministry of Energy, Science, Technology, Environment and Climate Change (MESTECC) launched the “Roadmap Towards Zero Single-Use Plastics” last October, it sent plastic manufacturers into a tizzy, wondering how they were going to comply with the policy direction that stretches to 2030.

Their anxiety is not surprising given that the roadmap aims to significantly increase the production volume of biodegradable and compostable plastic products for local use. The ministry has plans to implement a widespread uptake of bio-bags nationwide to replace conventional plastic bags, which is a major milestone set for Phase 2 of the roadmap that spans from 2022 to 2025.

In the same phase, the ministry is also targeting to expand the scope of biodegradable and compostable plastic products to include items such as food packaging, plastic films, cutlery and food containers.

Of the plastic industry’s RM30.98 billion contribution to revenue last year, 47% or some RM14.56 billion was from exports.

The manufacture of plastic packaging is the industry’s largest segment, comprising 48% of the products made and which are mostly for single use. Other plastic materials for the electronics and electrical sector make up 27% while the rest is used in the automotive, agriculture, construction and household sectors.

Lim says the MPMA is concerned that “zero” single-use plastics would mean an eventual complete ban on all single-use conventional plastics, including food packaging, medical devices, stretch films, storage bottles and plastic bags.

However, he is quick to emphasise that the MPMA is not against the ministry’s efforts to cultivate a cleaner and healthier environment in Malaysia. It only hopes that the ministry will look at the issue holistically, he adds.

The association president says the MPMA supports the use of biodegradable plastics, but points out that conventional plastics have their place in the single-use plastic space as they are able to meet the functional requirements of certain final products that bio-plastics cannot.

“Despite many years of research and development, biodegradable products generally do not meet the functional requirements that are necessary for packing certain products. That is why major brand owners have had to resort to very challenging commitments of achieving 100% recyclability goals, instead of just switching to bio-packaging.

“If it is not possible to replace [plastic] and if the industry is forced to, the impact goes beyond the plastic industry … to the brand owners and [this] will spill over to consumers,” Lim remarks.

It is noteworthy that consumer brands such as Coca-Cola have committed to make their packaging 100% recyclable globally by 2030 while PepsiCo and Unilever have similar targets, which they aim to achieve by 2025.

The MPMA’s view is that the roadmap should focus on banning only specific types of single-use plastics instead of all of them. Furthermore, Lim believes more emphasis should be placed on anti-littering and recycling efforts as well as waste-to-energy programmes.

“We recognise the steps taken by the ministry with good intentions, but it is also important for us to look at the issue holistically. Something that is useful and functional only becomes a problem when it becomes litter. The problem we are facing is not due to the material but the action. We have to ask ourselves whether this roadmap will resolve the issue of littering,” he tells The Edge.

In an email reply to The Edge, MESTECC clarifies that the road­map does not impose any ban on plastic products. Rather, the aim is to get manufacturers to switch to greener materials and for the public to refuse single-use plastics and reduce their consumption of such products.

MESTECC defines single-use plastics as conventional plastics made from petroleum that are commonly used for plastic packaging, carrier bags and items intended to be used only once before being discarded.

It adds that the circular economy framework is a major milestone in the roadmap that will place an emphasis on recycling technologies that are suitable for Malaysia.

“Currently, the ministry is in the midst of identifying legitimate recycling technologies to solve the plastic waste management problem in Malaysia. Upon identifying these technologies, the ministry will launch a circular economy roadmap inclusive of different types of plastic polymers and respective recycling technologies that could treat them without harming the environment. For the polymers that do not fit into the circular economy roadmap, a polluter levy will be imposed on non-recyclable polymers,” the ministry says in its reply.

Where biodegradable plastics are concerned, MESTECC admits that they are expensive largely due to the lack of economies of scale as local production volume is low. However, it is hoped that when major investments are made in the future, production volume will increase substantially, resulting in price stabilisation once economies of scale is achieved.

Towards that goal, MESTECC says it is working closely with the Ministry of Agriculture and Agro-based Industry through Bioeconomy Development Corporation, which will grant BioNexus status to qualified bio-resin manufacturers.

“For example, Cardia Malaysia Sdn Bhd is an existing local Bio­Nexus company that manufactures bio-resin. We have also worked with MIDA (Malaysian Investment Development Authority) to promote tax incentives for biodegradable plastics manufacturers,” it adds.

Indochine Bio Plastiques (ICBP) Sdn Bhd is another company that manufactures bio-resin, says the ministry.

MESTECC believes that with technology, there is great potential in utilising Malaysia’s non-food, agricultural waste biomass to produce compostable resin, such as polylactides (PLA) and polyhydoxyalkanoates (PHA) polymers. One of its strategic initiatives is to attract more investments to the industrial biotechnology sector, which is a growing global industry.

The ministry believes its 2022 mission is a realistic target to start the widespread use of biodegradable plastics.

“It is a realistic target because the Ministry of [Federal] Territories (KWP) has already successfully implemented this initiative and it is just a matter of scaling up to the whole nation,” says MESTECC.

 

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