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Reducing plastic usage - a mountain to climb
Published on: Sunday, February 28, 2010

IT is not uncommon these days to see consumers lugging up to 10 plastic bags containing purchases at the end of each supermarket visit.

No doubt, these bags are usually recycled at home for various purposes from lining garbage bins to use as makeshift gloves for removing waste materials around the house.

However, one thing is certain - these bags are fated to eventually end up in the dumpsites where, being non-biodegradable, their chemical composition would assure that they remain on this planet long after we have gone.

Some are thrown into drains and end up in the ocean where they choke and kill turtles who mistake them for jelly fish, their favourite food.

The plastic bag that we know of today was introduced in 1957 as a sandwich bag. It began to gradually replace the traditional brown paper bag and, following demand as a bag of convenience by retailing giants, the switch to these bags began in 1970s.

Plastics became a popular means of packaging when introduced to the supermarket industry as an alternative to paper sacks in 1977.

There has been a growing market for plastic bags worldwide since.

Shopping for groceries today usually requires more than one plastic bag.

Cold goods are put in one bag and dry goods in another while meat and vegetables get their own plastic.

And of course, there is the extra plastic(s) for the new clothes.

The United Nations Environment Programme estimates there are 46,000 pieces of plastic litter floating in every square mile of ocean threatening thousands of marine animals.

Campaigning on environmental protection and preservation, governments worldwide have been urging the public and retailers to go plastic-free.

In Malaysia it is being tried in Penang and Selangor with more states monitoring closely the success in these two opposition-led States before adopting it.

A random observation by Daily Express showed that almost all retailers in the city - supermarkets, hypermarkets, hawker stalls, pharmacies, retail shops, etc - continue to give out plastic bags to customers.

They said unless they received instructions from the relevant authority or unless the Government imposed strict rules on plastic use, there is no point in stopping.

There is also a form of plastic that is environmentally-friendly.

The move to shift from the traditional plastic to this bio-degradable plastic seems to receive poor response as plastic manufacturer here received only a small quantity of orders for the bio-degradable version from retailers.

What is more surprising is that even some plastic suppliers are not aware of the existence of this bio-degradable plastic bag.

"We understand that the Government is urging everyone to reduce plastic usage and we are planning to shift from normal plastic to a more environmental friendly plastic to reduce the impact on the environment.

"We did ask for bio-degradable plastic from the suppliers but it seemed that they were not aware there was one. So we are at loss É at the moment we are using normal plastic," said Carrie Fong, a manager of Penampang Merdeka Supermarket (S) Sdn Bhd.

On Nov. 25, State Tourism, Culture and Environment Minister, Datuk Masidi Manjun said, the Government cannot stop retailers from using plastic bags but retailers play an important role in educating the public on the importance of reducing plastic usage.

What the retailers could do, he said, is to encourage their customers to bring their own shopping bags or charge customers if they were to use the plastics provided by the store.

Carrie said, Merdeka Supermarket allows customers to use their own bags when doing their grocery as efforts to reduce the usage of plastic bags.

She also said it is difficult for supermarkets to instil the awareness on the impact of using plastic bags to individuals when plastic bags exist almost everywhere.

"The moment they step out of the awareness zone, they forget about it completely. Unless the authority makes it a point that there should be at least a 'free plastic day' in a week throughout the State.

I think this would have greater impact.

"On our part, although we did not carry out any campaign, we encourage our customers to use their own bag so that the supermarket can reduce plastics usage and customers will not have to bring extra plastics home," she said.

However, even the introduction of the eco-friendly reusable bags in the supermarket did not help much in reducing plastic usage as it received poor response from customers.

"We are collaborating with the KK International School in efforts to encourage customers to use eco-friendly bags instead of plastics.

The school created their cloth bag and gave it to us which we sell for RM10 each É but we received poor response from the customers," she said.

Kolombong Giant Hypermarket Manager, Yapp Kwan Ming, agreed that most customers feel it is inconvenient for them to bring their own shopping bags and they often use plastics provided by the shop, showing no sign of refusal.

"Most probably people are just plain busy that bringing their own bag never came across their mind and sometimes they probably just forgot to bring one.

"We sell Giant reusable bags to customers at an affordable price for RM3.49 each. Although the response is quite good. Surprisingly not many are sing it," he said.

The usage of bio-degradable plastics, however, would have to wait, as Giant branches here had yet to receive instruction from its headquarters in Shah Alam.

Tong Hing Supermarket Sdn Bhd (KK) Manager, Helson Masingon, noted that foreign tourists are more likely to bring their own bags whenever they do their groceries compared to locals.

"We have tourists coming in daily and most of them bring their own shopping bags and sometimes they refused to use plastic.

Instead they just put the items in their backpack.

"We are trying to reduce plastic usage by allowing our customers to use their own shopping bags.

But there are only small numbers of locals practising this habit," he said.

In fact, Tong Hing supermarket became the talk of the town when they reintroduced the us of old-fashioned brown paper bag in efforts to cut down on plastic use. However it only lasted few months before they reverted to using plastic.

Helson said "The paper bag programme did not last long because it is expensive compared to normal plastic and is easily torn apart.

As for bio-degradable plastics, we are depending on the manufacturer.

"If they do not produce bio-degradable plastic bags, we will have to use what is being produced.

Maybe the Government could help to supply the plastics to certain retailers," he said.

Even Servay Supermarket is shrugging their shoulder when asked about the shift to environmental friendly plastics. It looks like the usage of bio-degradable plastic has becoming just a discussion plan that is yet to be realised.

"We will have to discuss with the management regarding this shift.

We have to find out the costing first because bio-degradable plastic is slightly expensive compared to normal plastic. The (normal) plastic we are using now cost RM1.26 for a normal size bag," a spokesperson of the supermarket said.

Sunny Supermart Sdn Bhd too is putting the environmental friendly plastic in the planning book.

Until they know the cost of purchasing bio-degradable plastic from a supplier or manufacturer, the shift will have to put on hold.

These shops are finding ways to help customer switch to eco-friendly reusable bag, however if supermarket and hypermarket themselves continue to utilise plastic bags, who then can set the example?

Would the introduction of bio-degradable plastic really help to reduce the chemical impact on the environment?

According to Wikipedia, bio-degradable plastics can degrade to the point where micro-organism can metabolise them, however it could have a damaging effect on soil, and water-usage and quality.

If this is the case, maybe reverting back to paper bag is not a bad idea after all as this could definitely reduce the plastic usage.

Realising what plastics could do to the environment Metrojaya nationwide is in its efforts to cut down the usage of plastic bags by providing big size paper bag to their customers.

"We are raising the awareness not by publicity but internally.

It is true we are still using plastic bags but we also give out big size paper bag, especially during festive season, to customers so they can put in more items without having to use so much of plastics.

"In a way, this will help to reduce plastic usage among shoppers as well as the retailer. Even that, we are trying to cut down papers. We are going electronic when it comes to catalogue and newsletter É and by next year, we will come up with Metrojaya eco-friendly bag for our customers.

"We will encourage our customers to use it whenever they shop with us because we do not allow them to use their own bags for security purposes," said Alice Tan, a Metrojaya Deputy General Manager Ad and Promotion.

The Body Shop worldwide had stopped using plastic bags since 2008 and being an environmentally responsible company, they shifts to paper bags and introduced its own green bag.

"We are now replacing our carrier bags with 100 percent recycled and recyclable paper bags that is water-based inks and is reusable.

We also have a big size plastic bag which is bio-degradable specially used only for gifts packaging and delivery.

"We get our paper bags supply from the United Kingdom and it cost about RM1 to RM1.80 per bag depending on the size. It is only expensive by few sen from the previous normal plastic bags we have used," said Rachel Khoo, a Marketing Communications Manager of The Body Shop Sabah.

In conjunction with World Earth Day in April 22, this year, The Body Shop has encouraged the public to reduce their carbon footprints by refusing a plastic bag and using The Body Shop Green Bag each time they shop.

"It is a global campaign by our company to encourage people not to use plastic bags. We sold about 80 green bags made from organically grown cotton during the one week campaign and we have been receiving positive response ever since.

"I think people are slowly getting used to eco-friendly bags and there should be an on-going campaign to keep enhancing the awareness among the public on the impact of plastic towards the environment," she said.

Still, both paper bags and plastic bags are a threat to our environment.

To produce 10 billion paper bags, 14 million trees must be cut down thus creating global warming.

A recent online survey done by IKEA Malaysia shows that 93 percent of Malaysian is aware that the plastic usage could cause harm to the environment and agreed to use fewer plastic bags.

While most retailers throughout the country are offering plastics for free, IKEA on the other hand is charging 20 sen for each plastic bag used by their customers.

Damansara IKEA Sustainability Manager, Ben Chong, said the move is implemented as part of IKEA's goal in reducing the waste inherited from plastic bag consumption and to contribute in reducing the overall litter that is strangling the earth.

"We know that breaking the plastic bag habit may take some time, and so should the need arise, IKEA will have the plastic bags available for 20 sen each.

"We do not gain any profit from this. The money raised by charging for plastic bags will be donated to the Malaysia Nature Society as part of our responsibility in protecting the environment," he said.

Although IKEA is utilising bio-degradable plstic bags since 2003, like any other stores, IKEA too encourages the usage of reusable bags among the public.

Carrefour Malaysia Marketing and Communications director, Ngai Yuen said, a fine need to be imposed for those who use plastic bags to further drive the 'green' shopping culture.

Being the number one retailer in Europe and the leading hypermarket chain in Malaysia, Carrefour too set out the example by driving the message with a small penalty of 10 sen for each plastic used.

Perhaps, Masidi could be right that by charging customers or retailers the plastic they used would somehow increase the awareness on free plastic bags.

In China, the government prohibits shops, supermarkets and sales outlets from providing free plastics.

They even threatened to fine shopkeepers and vendors as much as 10,000 yuan (about RM5, 000) if they were caught distributing free bags.

Mumbai, India, banned plastic bags in 2000 to prevent garbage from clogging drains during moonson season. Ban or taxes have since been adopted in Australia, Ireland, Italy, South Africa, and United States.

In Tanzania, selling a thin plastic bag risks the maximum penalty of six month on jail and a 1.5 million shilling (about RM4, 000) fine.

Like the classic saying, you have got to hit them where it hurts.

And for many people, it is money.

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