Banning plastic bags so that people use paper bags or imported reusable bags that will end up in local landfills soon thereafter is not the only solution to our plastic bag challenge.

– Kevin de Leon, American politician

It seems that many still cannot live without plastic bags.

The first man-made plastic was demonstrated at the 1862 Great International Exhibition in London.

Almost 100 years later, the plastic shopping bag was created by Swedish engineer Sten Gustaf Thulin in the early 1960s.

Twenty years later, due to the pervasive use of plastic bags, by 1980, Woodbury, a city in the United States, starts a recycling programme.

In the 1990s, the use of plastic microbeads in cosmetics became widespread, leading to the entry of plastics into the food chain.

In 1997, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, the world’s largest collection of floating garbage, was discovered.

In 2002, Bangladesh became the first country to ban plastic bags after it was found to be one of the major causes of severe floods due to blocked drains.

There are some environmental activists who have estimated that we use between 1.4 billion and 2.7 billion plastic bags per day.

Normally, plastic items take up to 1,000 years to decompose in landfills. The plastic bags we use in our everyday life can take 10 to 20 years to decompose. Yet it will still leave micro plastics as a leftover.

Much has been said and written about plastic bags and the impact it has had on our lives and environment. There are always two sides to every argument.

Is there anything good to be said about plastic bags? Well as many will testify, they are a huge convenience since they are light and durable. 

They are less prone to tearing, easier to carry, and are far more useful in bad weather. Plastic bags are reusable as bags, as trashcan liners and as storage bags.

Plastic bags can also last a long time and can be repurposed. Additionally, usually, there is no direct financial cost to the consumer.

Generally, retailers also prefer plastic bags as they are cost-effective. Compared to other forms of bags, they are easy to use, easy to store, weigh little and cheap.

From the business perspective, plastic bags are also better for profit margins, especially as some retailers have started selling them on the pretext of trying to deter people from using them in “Say No to Plastic Bags Everyday” campaigns.

So much for the good, they bring. The Malaysian Plastics Manufacturers Association in 2018 stated that each Malaysian throws away 300 plastic bags a year on average.

The negative impact is much more. It must be noted that the plastic bags we use come from non-renewable fossil fuel-based material resources such as petroleum and natural gas.

Therefore, the manufacture of plastics has a negative impact and contributes to climate change. The production processes also create greenhouse gases.

Plastic bags are also not biodegradable, picking up plastic litter costs tax money, the majority of plastics is never recycled and end up in landfills, plastic waste also harms marine life, plastic litter often clogs drainage systems, plastic bags collect rainwater and creates a breeding ground for mosquitos.

I was happy to read recently that Sibu Municipal Council — effective Jan 1 — has banned single-use straws at all eateries within its jurisdiction, the first to do so in Sarawak.

Legislation and regulations play an important role.  As an example, the use of Styrofoam was prevalent at the yearly Ramadan stalls in Miri. However, it was made a condition in the permit for the stall operators that Styrofoam was not to be used for food packaging. Last year, all these stalls complied.

The lesson learnt is that rules and regulation are more effective than awareness only. Awareness campaigns are time-consuming and expensive.

There are viable alternatives to plastic bags. The most obvious one is to bring your own bag. There are also non-plastic alternatives that retailers can sell, such as bio bags that have zero plastic content.

Similarly, for straws, there are many alternatives. In fact, just drink from the glass or the can directly.

There needs to be political willpower, genuine concern for our environment, courage and focused determination to introduce laws banning the use of plastics in Sarawak.

Once legislated, these laws must be backed up with rigorous enforcement. We are well known for passing laws and later being weak on enforcement.

In the meantime, while waiting for the politicians to finish their never-ending year in and year out, so-called ‘studies’ on the banning of single-use plastics, you can be the change.

Your act of ‘Refusing Plastic Bags, Plastic Straws and Styrofoam’ will have a huge positive impact, not just on Mother Earth but also your immediate surroundings.

So, be the one who makes a difference. Act now!

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the New Sarawak Tribune.