How it all started
Two hundred years ago, when someone went to the local market to shop, they would bring their own bag and put their purchased goods in it. They would bring their own containers if they planned to buy food from outside. But things changed in the early years of the 20th century. In 1907, Leo Baekeland invented fully synthetic plastic from Bakelite. This invention changed the world as we know it today. We see plastic all around us and we are ourselves avid consumers of plastics. We cannot imagine our lives without them.
The creation of plastics represents a significant innovation. First marketed as “the material of thousands uses”, bakelite can be shaped into nearly anything. However, a material that once seemed magical and positively transformed billions of people’s lives, turns out to cause an enormous environmental impact. As plastic is increasingly used and disposed of, it accumulates on land and in the oceans as waste. It takes thousands of years to decompose, pollutes the environment, and creates waste management challenges. Currently, most governments try to regulate plastic waste by promoting recycling, campaigning for its reduced usage, and making producers accountable for the end-of-life management of plastic products through extended producer responsibility (EPR).
While plastic waste on land is without doubt a large problem, it is arguably easier to collect and process. Meanwhile, plastic waste in the oceans is harder to handle because of the nature of the ocean itself. According to a 2021 study, six out of the top ten countries which leak plastic into the oceans are southeast asian countries. Specifically, those countries are the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, Myanmar, Vietnam, and Thailand. Marine litter is harmful since oceans house thousands of organisms which may mistake plastic for food. Marine waste can endanger and poison the ocean's ecosystem. If endangering marine organisms were not enough, microplastics can also enter our food chains and transfer microplastics to humans who consume seafood. Microplastics are dangerous to humans’ cells since they can cause, among others, cell death and allergic responses. Therefore, managing marine litter cannot be neglected.
In response to this issue, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) published the Regional Action Plan to Combat Marine Debris 2021 - 2025. A country that quickly adopted this regional action plan into their national roadmap is Malaysia. In 2021, the Ministry of Environment and Water of Malaysia launched the Malaysia Plastics Sustainability Roadmap 2021 - 2030. This roadmap provides a legal framework on plastic production, consumption, recycling and waste management in a holistic approach. The roadmap is also an effort to promote sustainable development through an equilibrium between economic growth, environmental protection, and social wellbeing through circular economy principles. It focuses on four types of resins that are very used in Malaysia: PP, PET, HDPE, and LDPE/LLDPE.
The most important aspect of Malaysia’s roadmap on plastic sustainability is the strategy it seeks to develop to handle plastic waste. There are four strategies included in the roadmap: first, improving product design, collection and sorting outcome; second, market development and innovation to grow a circular economy; third, building capacity for reprocessing and manufacturing of recycled products nationally; and lastly, harmonizing standards, regulations and communication across jurisdictions. The strategy represents a step forward toward a world with less plastic waste and increased economic value.
Right on time, right on target, right on benefit
When formulating a public policy, the policy must be developed for maximum effectiveness. It involves the policy being developed and implemented right on time, right on target and right on benefit. It is necessary to avoid policies that are detached or do not address a real societal issue. How does one measure the right-ness of a policy? Is Malaysia’s national roadmap on the right track? For a policy to be deemed effective, it has to be on time. This means that the policy answers the issue that needs to be addressed now and/or for the benefit of the future. If the policy addresses an issue that is not relevant for the time being, then it will not benefit anyone.
Since 2017, Malaysia has been the largest importer of plastic waste. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the use of single-use plastic increased significantly. This raised the total amount of generated plastic waste in Malaysia to an alarming level. According to WWF Malaysia, plastic waste generation in Malaysia currently reaches more than 1 million tons. If not addressed quickly, the amount of waste will only accumulate and will be even more difficult to handle. Therefore, policies toward more sustainable plastic usage and responsible waste management are very needed.
It is also important for a policy to be right on target. This refers to the actors addressed as the target of a policy. Transforming waste issues into new economic opportunities through circular economy principles requires collaboration between various actors. A lack of collaboration creates a silo effect. For example, the plastic waste issue should not only be the focus of a nation’s ministry of environment, but also of the ministry of economics to consider the potential of transforming the plastic waste issue into new economic opportunities. According to Malaysia’s plastics sustainability roadmap, the program will involve federal and state authorities, industry actors, academia, civil society, as well as the public. The involvement of all these actors is beneficial as long as a good coordination is insured among actors in the implementation of measures in the field.
The most important consideration when developing a policy is that it must be beneficial. It must benefit the public. The circular economy is about transforming waste into new products and resources. It gives waste a new life. The government of Malaysia formulated the plastics sustainability roadmap with a circular economy approach in mind. They seek to stimulate economic growth with means that do not endanger the environment.
A circular economy does not only benefit the public in the sense that it protects the environment, but it can also create many new economic activities. With around 1 million tons of plastic waste generated every year, this waste can be reused and recycled into new products. This can, in turn, create new job opportunities and activities involving materials and resources that already exist around us. The daily per capita generation of household waste in Malaysia is higher than in other developing countries such as Indonesia or the Philippines. In addition, Malaysia’s waste management systems are inadequate to handle all the plastic waste produced.
In Malaysia, the most common way to currently deal with waste is either domestic burning or disposal in landfills. In 2021, 85% of solid waste material in Malaysia ended up in landfills. The issue with directing waste to landfills is that it takes thousands of years for the plastic to decompose into microplastics. There exists a huge untapped economic potential within the waste management ecosystem in Malaysia. A circular economy approach within (plastic) waste management will not only create economic opportunities, but also economic growth.
In conclusion, plastic is a miracle invention. We cannot imagine our lives for even a day without plastics. However, as we become more aware of its health and environmental consequences, as users we must become wiser in using it responsibly. At the same time, governments must develop effective policies to regulate the responsible use and end-of-life management of plastics. The responsible and sustainable use of plastics is an action that we must adopt now, it cannot wait any longer. Changing consumer behavior cannot happen overnight and constructing an economic system based on circular economy principles requires commitment. That is why there is no better time than right now to start acting for our own social as well as the environment’s prosperity.