The Sunday Star
by Roger Tan
Call to action: Raelyn Rachele Chwee (left) and Christina Kow of the Waste Management Association of Malaysia passing on the message to passers-by.
We need to reduce or curb the use of single-use plastic masks in order to save our environment and planet.
ANSWERING the earlier calls from the Malaysian Association of Tour and Travel Agents (MATTA) to turn to Cuti-Cuti Malaysia to help the local domestic tourism industry, my family and I decided to spend a weekend at Redang Island recently.
Interestingly, I was not alone at all in answering to this call during these febrile times. The island’s long beach was crowded with holidaymakers. We had a great stay at the Laguna Redang Island Resort. The hotel staff there were ever so helpful and courteous. They were in high spirits.
But sadly, the lives of their counterparts in the Klang Valley especially in those hotels which have remained closed since movement control order in March have been one of despondency. Some of them have to turn to part-time jobs like riders for Grab Food and Foodpanda to make ends meet.
This Covid-19 pandemic has indeed exacted an untold misery on the human race as well as the environment. But as I undertook snorkelling and enjoyed the rich underwater marine life in Redang, I felt as if God was telling us to be still for a moment and let the marine life heal and rewild itself during this period.
Then it dawned upon me how acts of men could still harm them and the environment if our oceans are still clogged with more plastic waste, posing a huge threat to the marine ecosystems. Plastic pollution will exacerbate when non-biodegradable face masks made of polypropylene (PP) and gloves made of synthetic polymers such as vinyl find their way into our rivers and oceans.
Already conservationists have found masks floating like jellyfish in the oceans and latex gloves strewn around seabeds.
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), scientists estimate that close to 90% of all seabirds have ingested plastic. Plastic is also found in 50% of sea turtles, mistaking it as real food.
Needless to say, as we consume seafood, it also poses a health risk to us since microscopic particles have entered the food chain.
Indeed, plastic waste should be disposed of in a landfill even though it can take up to 1,000 years for the plastic to decompose in landfills. The reason why we see more plastic ending up in oceanfills is because it costs many times more to recycle than to produce a new one. Hence, a study by the United States National Academy of Sciences revealed that in 1975 alone, oceangoing vessels dumped about eight million pounds (3.6million kilograms) of plastic into the oceans every year.
This environmental impact on the entire ecosystems will last for generations to come, unless we wake up to the possibility of an environmental disaster that is coming.
You see, my fellow Malaysians, we have a population of close to 33 million. Now that wearing masks is mandatory since August 1, and assuming half of our population wear masks daily, and often single-use face masks, then we are talking about more than 10 million of face masks being discarded daily.
Sadly, the Ministry of Environment and Water and the Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation are completely silent on this issue when they should be at the forefront in advising Malaysians what we can and should do to reduce or curb the use of single-use plastic masks and their alternatives in order to save our environment and planet.
In my humble opinion, we should quickly consider the following:
> Opt for reusable fabric masks without disposable filters. The masks can be machine washed regularly by following the instructions for the fabric. In fact, a face shield, notwithstanding it is also made of plastic, can still be an alternative to single-use mask because its easily cleaned and sanitise for re-use.
> Try to carry a spare reusable mask so that if something should go wrong with the one you are wearing; you do not need to use or buy a disposable mask.
> If you do need to use a disposable mask, take it home (may be in a bag if you have to take it off) and then put it straight into a bin with a lid. If this is not possible, place it in a proper public bin.
> If it is taken home, the masks should be segregated from other household waste by disposing them in a sealed receptacle to prevent scavenging when it is collected by waste workers.
> The ear straps or loops of these masks should be cut off before disposal as legs and wings of animals have been seen to be tangled in face masks.
> Do not put disposable masks in the recycling bins. They can get caught in specialist recycling equipment and be a potential biohazard to waste workers.
> Whatever you do, do not litter them!
I know, to many Malaysians, the above will appear to be a tall order. But unless we change our mindset by taking little steps as set out above, we will only harm ourselves because we are part of the natural world. As Sir David Attenborough used to say, if we take care of nature, nature will take care of us.
With all due respect, our enforcement agencies’ lackadaisical response towards littering over the years has always dismayed me. As explained above, now is the time for laws on littering under the Local Government Act, 1976 and Solid Waste And Public Cleansing Management Act, 2007 to be enforced strictly in order to deal with irresponsible disposal of face masks which are hazardous to humans and animals.
All in all, it is hoped, political differences aside please, that the current government will carry on with the roadmap and blueprint introduced by the previous Ministry of Energy, Science, Technology, Environment & Climate Change (MESTECC) to aim at zero plastics by 2030.
Similarly, as a littoral state, Malaysia should seriously study the need to have our own Save our Seas Act to address the plastic debris threatening our oceans and harming our marine creatures.
The writer, a former Board Member of SWCorp Malaysia, is the honorary secretary of the Waste Management Association of Malaysia. The views expressed here are solely his own.