Environmental Spectrum: We’re not All Plastic People

Environmental Spectrum: We’re not All Plastic People
by Kim Manta-Khaira

(for more info and pictures, go to Green Team IIUM’s Website)

Learning that Earth Hour may not be so effective in the long run allows me to look at the environmental spectrum in a whole different light. The environment doesn’t need our attention for just an hour over 365 days a year, but every minute, every day towards changing the system. Thus, I took the chance to attend the Earth Day dialogue “Plastic Bag: To Ban, or Not to Ban?” organized by the Penang state government, on 19th April.

There were many opposing viewpoints that professionals from the environmental spectrum chose to present. Mr. Lim Guan Eng, Penang’s Chief Minister opened the dialogue and said that there are three reasons as to why it is difficult to address the problem of plastic bags: 1) It is plentiful; 2) useful; and 3) cheap. Thus, it is evident where the Chief Minister stood on the environmental spectrum when he said, “To ban or not to ban? We have to find a way to reduce the use of plastic bags”, and added that he meant no offence to any particular parties in any industry. Whilst some can say that it is a neutral stand (neither to eradicate plastic bags nor to totally promote it), the rest of the panel can be seen as otherwise.

Mr. Lim Kok Boon, Chairman of Malaysian Plastics Forum (MPF) and President of Malaysian Plastics Manufacturers Association (MPMA), is one passionate advocate for plastics when he said, “Plastics come from crude oil, from a hole in the ground. And it will return to a hole in the ground”. Lim said that the Australian Government’s error by stating that 100,000 marine animals are killed annually due to being entrapped in plastic bags, are actually corrected to plastic debris. Environmentalists in the panel explained, plastic debris results from the degradation of plastic bags that ultimately get into our waterways.

The MPF Chairman’s presentation slide displayed that having plastic bags to degrade 100 to 1000 years later is better than having harmful methane gas now. This then brings a person to wonder where the idea of “sustainability” for our future generation can come in. Although plastic bags can be recycled, one has to ask critically, “How many plastic bags are recycled compared to those that are produced?”

Don Theseira strongly opposed the usage of plastic bags in our “throw-away society” by saying, “No more plastic bags at the checkout counter of supermarkets now”. Theseira believes that the government must stop the organization of events if zero-waste cannot be achieved, and ended his talk by saying, “We should ban plastic bags. It can’t be done tomorrow, but it should start tomorrow”.

When it comes to plastic bags, Theseira’s wife, Mylene Ooi is adamant towards its usage. “Plastic is plastic is plastic. There is no running away from that fact,” said Ooi. “We want flowers, and not the plastic flowers. While we only have the earth, we’re not going to transport to outer space”. The couple believed that the dialogue lacked in focus because of failure to underline the issue: Whether to ban, or not to ban plastic bags. -And their stand is simply to ban.

“By all means, use plastic bags, but know when to stop,” Professor Lee stressed. Professor Lee Lik Meng from USM said that although his university banned polystyrene, “we’re not saying no plastic, we’re saying less plastic bags.” Lee gave an example of airline companies who contribute to 3% of overall greenhouse gases. “Airlines do not deny the facts by saying ‘you got it wrong’,” said Lee. “But instead say, ‘We’ll reduce it’.”

Hatijah Hashim from CAP talked on health and environmental effects of plastic bags, which contrasted against Mr. Lim’s claims as she said that plastic bags are a threat to marine life. She explained that plastic is a combination of molecules and not all of the styrene is perfectly formed, even in plastic containers where there contain a certain amount of residues, which can be leaked into foods. Concerned about the dire state of the environment, Hashim said, “No one wants to live in a city of plastics”.

The discussion between the audience and panel was a heated debate. “We cannot deny to the many opposing views. Whether we are right or wrong, we want to reduce,” began environmentalist Daphne Goh. “We are here not for ourselves. We are doing this for our family, our next generation. It’s not about us and we cannot be selfish. If you want to care about the environment, truly care about yourselves”.

Ahmad Khairuddin Sha’aban, Chairman of Education and Awareness from MPF said that experts should not alarm or stress consumers. “It is not a material issue, but a littering issue,” he said. “We should not demonize it”. He said that everything is useful depending on the levels or degrees applied.

Another opposing viewpoint by Mr. Ooi from the audience was that taking away plastic bags would be taking away freedom for people (to make a choice), while a representative from the Tanjung Bunga Residents Association implied of the plastic manufacturers, “If you want to invite the chickens, you don’t invite the foxes to make the chicken coop”.

At the end of the dialogue, the resolution draft was brought forward. It stated that the participants of the dialogue are “to act collectively and individually and commit to the following immediate and positive actions” which included to support efforts to reduce plastic bags, create proper management and disposal of plastic bags, sustainable alternatives, and support public educational and awareness campaigns.

Whether the dialogue will be deemed useful, it is yet to be known. All I know is that no matter which part of the environmental spectrum we choose to base our life on, we have to understand with great insight that when we have the power and energy to influence something, we are directly responsible to it and its outcome. This includes the environment, our future generations and our very being. I for one would agree to the ban of plastic bags, seeing as to how plastic bags are indeed demons to the environment whether we demonize it for our own sake or not.

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