It seems that plastic makers are saying they are going to distribute 150,000 free plastic bags next year to counter the Penang state government’s ‘no free plastic bags’ policy.
The news was published all over the Chinese-language media on Sunday. See a Guang Ming report here.
Let’s take a poll to see what kind of support the state has for its policy.
The Penang state government has asked NGOs to back its policy. Here is a response from an anti-plastic bags activist:
I am not sure whether the state government has a strategy to counter the plastic manufacturers who had been attacking the Penang State government since it first started the no plastic bags campaign.
The manufacturers presented their case for the continuous use of plastic bags based on the scientific facts that non-degradable plastics store up carbon (carbon sequestration), which reduces the CO2 to the atmosphere and therefore helps reduce global warming. They also stated that the alternatives, such as biodegradable plastics, are no better and paper bags are even more environmentally destructive in terms of energy used to make them and the cutting down of trees. The ‘facts’ that the plastic manufacturers presented – as to the environmental benefits of sequestering carbon and the help in fighting global warming by the manufacture of plastic bags – are selective, unbalanced and self serving.
The response of the manufacturers is the same as in the US and other countries when some city councils banned the use of plastics or the giving of plastic bags for free in super markets. Suddenly, the manufactures start to talk about 3Rs (reduce, recycle and reuse) and also the virtues of education of the public on use and disposal. However, all over the world, the recycling rates of plastic bags are low, often below 1 per cent. Some cities may reach 5 per cent for plastics as a whole. Hence, talk about recycling of plastics bags in Penang is unlikely to solve the problem of littering, blockage of drains, pollution of streams, rivers and coastal waters, etc. While indiscriminate throwing of plastic bags is a ‘behavioural problem’, reduction of plastic use will surely reduce the problem of littering and inappropriate disposal. Public education should be more focused and fines for littering are being enforced.
The environmental argument that plastics help in the sequestration of carbon is true in a very limited sense as the plastics are non-degradable. However, the production and manufacturing of plastics uses energy which requires fossil fuel and releases carbon dioxide, probably more than is bound up in the plastics. One has to take a ‘life cycle approach’ of plastics, from production to final degradation and the approach sometimes known as the cradle-to-death approach to see the impact of plastic manufacture.
What the state should do now is undertake an environmental audit on plastic bag use or challenge the plastic manufacturers to do an objective and science-based ‘Environmental Impact Analysis’ of the use of plastics in Penang. The EIA can then be reviewed by NGOs, research institutions, universities or a state-appointed scientific panel. The EIA should be broad in scope so that the impact on communities, biodiversity, drainage, floods, biodiversity, fisheries and health is assessed, with a cost benefit analysis.
The Penang CM has expressed disappointment that the NGOs have not been more vocal in support of the state policy on plastic bags. Actually, many environmental and civil society groups have done so (see a Penang Forum press statement here) but the media do not repeat their news coverage since it has been reported once.
I assume the state must have a working paper and a strategy before it launched its commendable campaign and presumably would have anticipated the attack by the plastics manufacturer as the campaign affects their economic interests. Expecting the NGOs to coordinate the defence against the attack perhaps reflects a lack of planning and perhaps inexperience in governance. NGOs had not been involved in the planning of the campaign and, though they have generally been supportive, had not been invited to any discussion of the campaign. There are also agencies created by the present government that would be more appropriate to come out to counter the spurious arguments of the plastic manufacturers.
The state government has formed two state councils since it came into power in Penang – the Penang Environmental Council and the Penang Science Council. These councils should be the ones also to come out with statements to refute the claims of the plastic manufacturers. However, both councils seem non-functional at this point. The state government should have formed a task force with the scientific and technical expertise to compile the facts and figures on on the plastic issue. The Environmental Council and Science Council presumably have the scientific credentials to give an authoritative opinion. NGOs are by definition advocacy groups and they do not have the same credibility to the public.
In the meantime, a task force should be formed to review the experiences of other groups, other countries that have imposed bans, such as Bangladesh, Bhutan and many city councils in other countries. They should also to produce fact sheets on the issues; in fact, many such fact sheets exist on the internet.
The state’s position does not appear very coherent at present as it left the allegations by the plastic manufacturers unanswered, and the support of the hypermarkets and supermarkets was not used. Supermarkets have been broadcasting their role in saving millions of plastic bags. Institutions such as universities and colleges have also lauded the ‘no plastics’ campaign. USM has even banned styrofoam. NGO support is only one of many responses possible. It is time for the government to get its act together and plan out a strategy to present its case and get maximum public support.