Should we blame it all on plastic?

By Mohd Noor Musa

PLASTIC has become an integral part of our daily lives, providing numerous benefits in terms of convenience, cost effectiveness and durability.

Rapid growth in plastic production and consumption, however, has led to a significant increase in plastic waste, much of which ends right up in our oceans, affecting our environment.

Plastic pollution has reached an alarming level, globally. Since 1950s, over 8.1 billion tonnes of plastics have been produced, with 9% recycled.

In 2013, the world generated over 299 million tonnes of plastic annually and by 2020, the number rose to over 367 million tonnes.

Approximately, 79% of plastic waste is disposed in landfills. The fact that just one-third is being recycled spells great concern as this means it could cause serious harm to the environment.

If the current rates of plastic production and use continue, the annual global plastic production will increase to 590 million tonnes, which will bring the total plastic production to about 34 billion tonnes by 2050.

About eight million tonnes of plastic enter the oceans yearly, impacting marine habitats and organisms.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) recognises the significant role of plastic pollution in its reports as it contributes to greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) and environmental degradation.

For instance, its Sixth Assessment Report (AR6) WGIII (Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability) highlights the importance of addressing plastic waste as part of a broader approach to reducing GHG and managing waste.

It states that plastic waste management practices can contribute to reducing emissions from waste decomposition and methane emissions from landfills.

The issue is exacerbated by the production of single-use plastics which account for 40 per cent of all plastics manufactured.

All these figures highlight the urgent need for enhanced recycling efforts, alternative energy sources and stricter regulations to mitigate the detrimental effects of plastic pollution on ecosystems and human health.

The breakdown of larger plastic debris into smaller particles called microplastics, is another big concern. These microplastics can be ingested by various organisms, including those at the base of the food chain.

This leads to bioaccumulation of plastic particles in the food web, eventually affecting humans who consume seafoods.

As such, effective environmental management requires a proper understanding of both – the cause of the plastics widespread to reduce the impact and the ecological implications.

In many countries, the challenge revolves around the need for better waste management, increased recycling efforts and public awareness.

Malaysia has made some inroads in addressing plastic pollution, but there is still a long way to go. Malaysia is ranked 78th of 166 countries in 2023 Sustainable Development Report.

According to the report on Sustainable Consumption and Production (SDG12), municipal solid waste remains an issue in Malaysia.

We are still facing significant waste management challenges across various waste streams.

Solid waste recycling rates are low, with recyclable materials constituting a substantial portion of landfilled waste.

Our solid waste management relies heavily on landfills, leading to space, health and environmental concerns due to ineffective and inadequate recycling practices and low recycling rates compared to other nations.

A survey conducted in 2023 by Utility Bidder, an energy service provider from the United Kingdom, found that Malaysia discarded about 2.29kg of plastic per person each year into the ocean.

We are in the fifth spot, behind Saint Lucia (fourth), Trinidad and Tobago (third), Suriname and the Philippines occupied the top spots of the most amount of plastic rubbish and waste into the ocean.

The government has introduced several initiatives to improve waste management such as the National Strategic Plan for Solid Waste Management 2019-2030 and the implementation of the Separation at Source Initiative (SSI) under the Solid Waste and Public Cleansing Management Act 2007 which focus on waste separation at the household level.

However, challenges persist, including inadequate infrastructure and insufficient funding for waste management facilities.

The Consumer Association of Penang (CAP) recently revealed that 500 toxic chemicals, including pesticides and industrial chemicals, were detected in recycled plastic pallets from 13 countries, including Malaysia.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), health concerns exist throughout the plastics’ lifetime, including production, use, recycling and eventual disposal.

Increasing evidence of microplastic intake and inhalation, worries about exposure to harmful compounds in plastic and the need for better waste management techniques, are all becoming more prominent in public health discussions.

Plastic pollution can have several dire effects on public healthcare, primarily through its impact on the environment, human health and various ecosystems.

Some of these effects include water contamination, marine pollution, vector-borne diseases and even mental health.

Microplastics and plastic additives can enter water sources easily, potentially affecting the quality of drinking water.

This can lead to increased risks of waterborne diseases and other health issues when consumed by humans.

Plastic waste in oceans can enter the food chain, affecting marine life and the seafood we consume.

Ingestion of microplastics can lead to various health issues, including gastrointestinal problems and reproductive issues.

Blaming plastic as the sole pollution culprit would be oversimplifying the issue.

Plastic is, indeed, a significant contributor to pollution, particularly marine pollution and microplastic contamination.

It is essential, therefore, to recognise that plastic pollution is often the results of human behaviour, consumption patterns, waste management systems and lack of proper recycling initiatives.

If we are to assign the blame, it would be more accurate to point towards individuals, industries and governments that contribute to overproduction, mismanagement and improper disposal of plastic products.

Addressing these waste management issues comprehensively is very crucial for Malaysia’s environmental sustainability and public health.

Corporations that produce single-use plastics, consumers who rely on these products and governments that fail to implement effective waste management policies – take note.

Our worsening situation is not due to lack of knowledge on science and technology. The issues we face are societal, stemming from cultural values, political ideologies, legal and economic systems, ethical principles and spiritual beliefs.

We must look beyond science and technology to solve this issue from a broader sociocultural perspective.

Addressing plastic pollution requires behavioural change and collective efforts from all stakeholders, including individuals making conscious choices, industries developing sustainable alternatives and governments enforcing stringent waste management laws.

Improved enforcement of existing laws, increased public participation and more significant investments in waste management infrastructure are crucial for Malaysia to effectively tackle plastic pollution.

Additionally, collaborations with other countries in the region and global partnerships can help address the transboundary nature of this issue.

As clearly stated in the preamble of the Earth Charter, “…we stand at a critical moment in Earth’s history, a time when humanity must choose its future. We must join together to bring forth a sustainable global society founded on respect for nature, universal human rights, economic justice, and a culture of peace.”

The charter also calls for ecological integrity by leading a sustainable lifestyle via adopting patterns of production, consumption and reproduction that safeguard Earth’s regenerative capacities, human rights and community well-being.

We have to acknowledge that we are currently living on a disrupted and disturbed planet.

To guide our path, we must communicate, collaborate and educate vis-à-vis learn, unlearn, and re-learn the way we manage our waste and protect our planet.

We need a shift to more sustainable solutions that work for both – people and the planet. Let’s promote harmony with nature and the Earth.


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