How can different segments of society tackle the plastic pollution crisis that is devastating marine wildlife? (Photo: SL Wong)

Plastic Solutions: It’s Complicated

[ICCB 2019] TWO CORPORATE executives and two conservationists walked into a room. They initially appeared to cross swords. “If we continue with chemical components in our plastic, we will endanger our health,” declared Fabien Cousteau, ocean activist and filmmaker.

But is biodegradable plastic “the magic bullet?” countered Wee Ching Yun, Chairperson, sustainability sub-committee of the Malaysian Plastics Manufacturers Association. “Will it eliminate all the pollution?”

(Photo: How can different segments of society tackle the plastic pollution crisis that is devastating marine wildlife? Credit: SL Wong)

This was one of two lively plastics solutions discussion panels on 22 July, at the recent International Congress for Conservation Biology 2019.

“We all know the problems. We believe we need to ban single-use plastic,” said Craig Leeson, who spent eight years making the documentary, ‘A Plastic Ocean’. The film has been screened in over 90 countries.

“But plastic is a good material. We are talking about irresponsible people littering and the need for better collection and enforcement,” asserted Goh Eng Leong, Managing Director of BASF (Malaysia).

BASF is one of the world’s biggest chemical companies, and Goh said that single-use consumer plastics wasn’t their main business but he was present to illustrate the bigger picture of plastic use.

Many approaches

Eventually, and with skillful moderation by marine ecologist Dr Leslie Cornick, all four panelists acknowledged the complexity of approaches needed to tackle plastic pollution.

The industry representatives said compostable plastic was already being produced. “It’s not a technical issue; the whole ecosystem has to work,” said Goh.

He has especially strong legs to stand on, as he hails from Jenjarom, ground zero in Malaysia for the illegal plastic recycling scandal that has gone global.

“In Jenjarom, recyclers have been taking the valuable plastic while the rest has been washing away into rivers or burned, creating toxic fumes.”

When local Jenjarom activists exposed the issue and lobbied hard, the government acted. This ranged from introducing a 12-year long roadmap to ban single-use plastics, to returning illegally-imported plastic waste back to its origin countries, largely in the developed world.

And the polluters are ..

“We have to correct this assumption that the main polluters are Asian,” said Leeson. “When we analysed what we found in the ocean, we found it was largely produced in the US, Australia or Europe.

“Developing countries are forced to accept products they can’t deal with at the waste stream end. There is no infrastructure because developing countries can’t afford it.”

Wee said that Malaysia has negligible and scattered implementation of activities and facilities for composting and waste segregation. “We must move to a circular plastic economy. And we need to change consumer behaviour.”

Cousteau agreed. “We’re under the delusion we need to consume every day. Modern marketing practices dictate that we need to use things and throw them away.

“Educating people not to use—not just single-use plastic but single-use anything—is the best approach.”

Related report: When Plastic Hits You in the Gut

This is a part of our reporting on the International Congress for Conservation Biology, July 21-25, 2019, Kuala Lumpur.