Annual plastic usage is getting worse, 148k tonnes for food packaging alone

AS tightened lockdown measures restricts people from going out for dining or work, there is an increasing usage of plastic packaging since the beginning of last year.

Such a phenomenon is especially apparent when the movement control order (MCO) 3.0 commenced in the whole country in mid-May.

For instance, more Malaysians prefer to order food via online delivery platforms such as GrabFood and FoodPanda. To maximise customers’ experience in enjoying takeaway food, many food and beverage (F&B) outlets first put the cooked food in a plastic container and wrap the plastic container with multiple layers of plastic to avoid spillage.

To minimise virus exposure, some Malaysians choose to stay at home for weeks or months. They often order goods via e-commerce platforms such as Shopee and Lazada.

According to the Shopee Seller Education Hub, merchants have to follow four steps for simple packaging to ensure buyers receive goods in good condition:

  1. Wrap the item in 2-3 rounds of bubble wrap;
  2. Pack any accessories separately;
  3. Choose a box or pouch that is larger than the item. Fill the extra space with filler material; and
  4. Tape the openings and seams of the box or pouch.

As eating in and home cooking become more common, more families buy packed food such as bread, instant noodles, sugar and flour for daily consumption. Some organisations use plastic bags to distribute food aid to the  poor and B40 households.

The surge of plastic packaging during the pandemic has led to a rise in plastic production. According to the Malaysian Plastics Manufacturer Association, plastic production has grown by 0.7% up to August last year, compared to 5% in the same period in 2019.

Despite the Government’s national Roadmap Towards Zero Single-Use Plastics in 2018, the ‘tapau’ (takeaway) culture has resulted in many hawker stalls and F&B outlets using plastic bags, the cheapest and most convenient method to pack readily cooked food.

Coupled with the rise of online delivery services, Malaysia has the highest annual per capita plastic use recorded at 16.78kg per person before the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic.

It is relatively higher than other neighbouring ASEAN countries such as Singapore (12.5kg), Philippines (12.4kg), Thailand (15.52kg) and Vietnam (12.93kg), according to a 2020 World Wildlife Fund (WWF) Malaysia report.

The situation is getting worse when more Malaysians are purchasing online or receiving food aid in plastic bags. As a result, Malaysia used 148,000 tonnes of plastic packaging for food in 2020 alone.

Although some restaurants took steps to use cardboard or paper containers for food delivery purposes, the containers’ lids and covers still require plastics. Many F&B outlets also use plastic bags instead of paper bags for delivery as rainwater would soak into the paper bags during the rainy season.

According to a start-up in Malaysia that provides greener solutions for takeaway packaging, Team Recycler, as of now, there is no solution to replicate plastics properties of being lightweight, transparent, waterproof and durable that could seal the food container packaging effectively.

Although it is challenging to eliminate plastic packaging, Malaysian citizens could do their part by stop buying unnecessary things online.

However, if the individual does not have time to cook in the work-from-home (WFH) environment, the option not to receive plastic cutlery could be chosen when ordering food online.

To further reduce plastic usage, individuals or households could substitute plastic storage containers (i.e., rice storage and soap dispenser) with glass storage ones.

Although Malaysia is committed to moving towards a circular economy, the current administration should work closely with businesses and green groups, introducing a system to encourage consumer goods firms to use less plastic packaging and fund better recycling schemes.

By involving the private sector, the Government could expedite product redesigning, introduce new business models, upgrade delivery mechanisms, apply new recycling technologies, enhance the experience of producer responsibility from other markets and accelerate project financing.

In addition, the Government could tax manufacturers, product processing and packaging centres for their use of plastic, allowing Malaysia to consider setting more ambitious targets than the current Malaysia Sustainable Plastics Alliance (MaSPA) targets.

For instance, Malaysia could set ambitious goals to achieve 100% plastic packaging to be recyclable/reusable/compostable, and enable 15% average recycled content across all plastic packaging by 2025 instead of 2030.

Moreover, the Government could provide subsidies and zero taxation for sustainable raw materials and products, encouraging industrial players to produce environmentally-friendly instead of conventional plastic packaging.

Environmentally-friendly packaging could come from agricultural waste (i.e., plant starch from corn, sugarcane or beet pulp), biodegradable packing peanuts, corrugated bubble wrap, mushroom-based packaging, recycled cardboard and paper, post-consumer recycled plastics and organic fabrics. – Aug 11, 2021


Amanda Yeo is Research Analyst at EMIR Research, an independent think tank focused on strategic policy recommendations based on rigorous research.

The views expressed are solely of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Focus Malaysia.

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