Friday, November 12, 2010

Elizabeth Wong claims plastic bags are ‘massive’ environmental problem

By Boo Su-Lyn November 12, 2010

SHAH ALAM, Nov 12 — Selangor executive councillor Elizabeth Wong has defended the state government’s plastic bags policy by declaring it a “massive” environmental issue but provided little evidence of the severity of the problem in the state.
Scientists and international environmentalists have dismissed plastic bags as a non-issue, pointing out that anti-plastic bag campaigns are based on exaggerated claims and flawed science.

But Wong, a major proponent of the policy which has caused unhappiness among some voters in the state, said it was an issue of waste.

“It (plastic bag) is an issue of waste,” she told The Malaysian Insider yesterday.

“Waste is an environmental threat. It’s a massive environmental issue. When it (plastic bag) breaks down, it breaks down to dangerous particles,” she said, adding that plastic bottles and styrofoam also contributed to waste.

The state Tourism, Consumer Affairs and Environment Committee chairman, however, did not provide the percentage of plastic bags in the state’s total waste stream.

Selangor’s “No Plastic Bag Day” policy, which bans free plastic bags on Saturdays, has caused business declines, and annoyed voters who deride the ban as inconvenient and ultimately having little impact on the environment.

Hypermarkets and retail shops in the country’s wealthiest state say they have suffered business declines of up to 30 per cent on Saturdays since Tan Sri Khalid Ibrahim’s administration implemented the policy across shopping malls, retail chains and hypermarkets, among others, in January this year.

Selangor charges 20 sen per plastic bag on Saturdays.

Wong, however, stressed that the state’s anti-plastic bag policy was not a form of token environmentalism as the state government also ran other environmental campaigns.

“That’s not the only thing the Selangor government is doing. There’s water, waste, rivers, protection of forests, transport. We’re also running a climate change policy,” said the Bukit Lanjan assemblywoman.

“We want to show people that if you change a little in consumer habits, it goes a long way,” she added.

Wong also said the state’s “No Plastic Bag Day” policy was run under the Consumer Affairs branch of her committee.

“I’m running this campaign under Consumer Affairs, not Environment,” she said.

During the state assembly sitting yesterday, Wong stressed that the government’s aim was to reduce usage of plastic bags, but not to eradicate it.

“We’re not running a campaign to ban, or stop the usage of plastic bags, but to show users that plastic bags have their value. It’s not free or gratis. The basis of plastic bags is petrochemical which is a limited resource,” she said.

On the Selangor government’s “No Plastic Bag Day” campaign website, plastic bags are blamed for the deaths of marine animals and for polluting rivers and beaches.

There is, however, little evidence that plastic bags pose a huge threat to the environment as the state government has made it out to be.

Scientists, politicians and marine experts have reportedly slammed the British government for joining a “bandwagon” based on flawed science, after then-Prime Minister Gordon Brown announced in 2008 that he would force supermarkets to charge for plastic bags.

“This is one of many examples where you get bad science leading to bad decisions which are counter-productive. Attacking plastic bags makes people feel good but it doesn’t achieve anything,” Sense about Science chairman Lord Taverne was quoted as saying in British daily The Times in 2008.

Experts have also reportedly dismissed widely stated claims that plastic bags kill 100,000 marine animals and a million seabirds every year.

This figure is reportedly based on a misinterpretation of a 1987 Canadian study in Newfoundland, which found that more than 100,000 marine mammals, including birds, were killed by discarded nets between 1981 and 1984. There was no mention of plastic bags in the study.

According to David Santillo, a marine biologist at Greenpeace, evidence showed that few animals were killed by plastic bags.

“With larger mammals it’s fishing gear that’s the big problem. On a global basis plastic bags aren’t an issue. We are not going to solve the problem of waste by focusing on plastic bags,” he was quoted as saying in The Times.

The British daily also quoted Professor Geoff Boxshall, a marine biologist at the Natural History Museum in London, as saying: “I’ve never seen a bird killed by a plastic bag. Other forms of plastic in the ocean are much more damaging. Only a very small proportion is caused by bags.”

But Wong announced this week that Selangor would extend the anti-plastic bag policy by another day.

“It will be on Sunday... starting January next year,” she told The Malaysian Insider later.

The federal government has also decided to launch a “No Plastic Bag Day” campaign beginning January 2011, said Wong.

In Penang, the “No Plastic Bag Day” policy would be enforced every day starting from January 1 next year, said the state’s Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng recently when tabling the 2011 Budget at the state assembly.

The Penang ruling is already seeing opposition from the public.

No comments: