Do we have the will to ban single-use plastics?

We don’t need a handful of people doing zero waste perfectly. We need millions of people doing it imperfectly. – Anne Marie Bonneau, owner of ‘Zero-Waste Chef’ blog

Plastic wastes are everywhere but there is no specific law to resolve the growing catastrophe.

I am sure you remember watching or reading news about container loads of plastic waste being exported by other countries to Malaysia for disposal.

The news showed the rubbish being left lying around in open spaces and piles of them being burnt openly with the toxic fumes poisoning Malaysians.

In Sarawak perhaps it has not happened on this scale. However, it is a common sight to see small piles of rubbish being burnt with plastics among them. This is obvious due to the acrid smell given off by the fumes.

Plastic waste is becoming a growing and serious threat to our earth, and its eco-system.

We have also seen pictures of many animals that are suffering or have died due to plastic wastes.

However, many of us just share the pictures on social media and get on with our lives. Only a minority take proactive steps to reduce or eliminate their usage of single-use plastics.

Perhaps we have this behaviour because we don’t see or feel any dramatic, immediate and negative impact on ourselves when we dispose of plastics willy-nilly here and there.

Mostly the hard work and efforts to minimise or discourage the use of single-use plastics are currently based on education or public awareness.

This is good. The message has successfully over the years gone out far and wide. The majority of people know about 3R (now updated to 5R — Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Repurpose and Recycle).

The Local Agenda 21 Section of Miri City Council (now updated to the Sustainable Development Goals Section) has done a great job with their awareness campaigns over the years.

They have laid a good foundation for future progress towards discouraging the use of single-use plastics and Styrofoam.

There are also some ad-hoc and fluctuating policies on piecemeal basis by some local councils in Sarawak that ban items like plastic bags and drinking straws in eateries.

However, enforcement of these policies is generally seen to be advisory in nature at the most and many eateries do not take it seriously.

Additionally, while the impact of awareness campaigns about single-use plastics have been limited. Take a look at the roadsides, the drains and our beaches. They are mostly chock-a-block full of plastic bottles and plastic bags.

So what are we to do?

It seems that from this point onwards it is only laws that are specifically designed to tackle this issue can make a permanent and sustainable change.

Can laws be effective?

Well, as an example, the food stalls at Ramadan Bazaars in Miri City are banned from using Styrofoam as part of their licensing conditions. The stalls all comply.

However, some of the same food stall operators when they operate elsewhere carry on using Styrofoam food packaging because there is no requirement to do otherwise.

This is just a simple example of how rules, when applied consistently, can be of great help.

At the moment one of the most visible forms of plastics pollution is along our rivers and seas.

Sarawak is fortunate to have a long coastline and many rivers. But it is precisely these natural assets that are being harmed including the seafood that comes from them.

Based on some research, it is said that microplastics, to varying degrees, have entered our food chain and are present in all the seafood that is consumed, which leads to health issues.

Malaysia now has ‘Roadmap to Zero Single-Use Plastic by 2030’ but it must be adhered to without slacking and also enhanced at the Sarawak level.

From a quick survey online, banning the use of single-use plastics is not high on any political party’s agenda or not even on any agenda in some cases.

For those who are passionate about having a safe and clean environment for Sarawak, request your state assemblymen for legislation to ban the import, manufacture, sale and use of a targeted list of single-use plastics.

Alternative and substitute materials are actually already available to replace some single-use plastics.

So, let’s go for it Sarawakians.

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