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In the year and a half since the COVID-19 pandemic started, environment and anti-corruption activist Wong Pui Yi has used just four single-use face masks. But these are already way too many for someone like her, who knows that disposable masks are partially made of plastic.
"I am not happy about it, but I didn't have a choice as I forgot to bring my cloth face mask on those occasions,” says Wong, a researcher who works on environmental governance issues such as the importation of plastic waste into Malaysia, for the non-profit Center to Combat Corruption and Cronyism (C4 Center).
“I've not bought a single box of face masks. Someone gave them free to me, and I put them in my bag in case I forgot to bring my cloth mask," added Wong, who authored the C4 report ‘Malaysia is Not a 'Garbage Dump': Citizens Against Corruption, Complacency, Crime, and Climate Crisis’.
Abhorring the use of plastic drinking cups, the activist has never bought bubble tea in her life. Instead, she uses reusable plastic containers or tiffin carriers when buying takeout food. She brings cloth bags when grocery shopping.
In sum, Wong’s limited use of plastic has not changed much since March 2020, early in the pandemic. But this may not be so for other consumers, whose ways of coping with COVID-19 restrictions can result in environmental consciousness being left far behind.
"Take a peek into our neighbour's rubbish bin, and we can see that many people are buying things online, especially food takeaways. Many people are throwing out plastic containers. Take a stroll along the street, and you can see a lot of face masks littered on the ground," she said.
“Just by going to vaccination centres, you can see buckets of syringes. And the use of PPE (personal protective equipment) increased exponentially," Wong said.
COVID-19 has changed our behaviour because we are forced to stay at home and "we have to make a lot of other adjustments, she added.
There are food vendors, she noticed, who would allow their customers to return plastic containers so that they could be reused. But there are also many consumers, including social media groups promoting zero-waste habits, who find it unhygienic to reuse such containers. "So, in the end, the number of people who are using single-use plastic containers is increasing," she said.
In all this, a particular human behaviour has not changed.
"We are creatures of convenience. So, the easiest thing to do is tapau (a Chinese word popularly used in Malaysia for ‘takeaway’) food or getting food delivered to us without thinking too much about the use of single-use plastic containers," she said.
People have been resorting to using items that are single use, then disposing of them because of fear of contamination during the pandemic. Among these are face masks, face shields, food containers, plastic gloves and PPEs.
Kovin Sivanasvaran, founder of the environmental group Glimpse of Malaysia, does see a slight change in how people are opting to use their own containers to take away food - but not always for ‘green’ reasons. "This is not due to awareness but the fear that the given packaging might carry the COVID-19 virus. So, I don't think it has made people more conscious," he said.
Overall, however, excessive plastic usage is something Malaysians are paying attention to, going by the results of a 30-country survey that the international consulting firm Ipsos carried out of people’s views and behaviour changes during the pandemic.
Seventy percent of Malaysians said they are likely to avoid products with a lot of packaging as their personal contribution to addressing climate change, says the ‘Earth Day 2021: Public Opinion and Action on Climate Change’ report. This came out first among other measures selected by Malaysian respondents to address climate change, reflecting an increase from 63% in the same report in 2020.
But does this point to major changes in Malaysians’ behaviour amid sustainability concerns highlighted by planetary stresses such as climate change and pandemics? Not necessarily, it seems, though Ipsos says the pandemic has seen “movement toward pro-environmental behaviours”.
Lars Erik Lie, the associate director of Ipsos Public Affairs - Malaysia, says the same survey showed little change in Malaysians’ sustainability-related behaviour since 2020. Over the last 18 months, concerns about COVID-19 have been particularly high in Malaysia, at the expense of longer-term issues that include environmental ones, he said.
Economic recovery is often seen as being separate from crises like climate change, even if they are connected in the search for greener recovery after the pandemic. Forty-two percent of Malaysians agreed — and 32% disagreed - with the statement in the Ipsos 2021 survey that “tackling climate change should not be a priority” for their government’s recovery from COVID-19. (Malaysia has a roadmap toward zero single-use plastics from 2013 to 2030.)
The statistics on plastic usage during the pandemic are worrying.
SWCorp, a solid waste and public cleansing management corporation, says that 86 tonnes of face masks are disposed of daily in this country of 32.8 million people. This makes up about 0.2% of the 38,000 tonnes of waste collected daily in the country, most of which will end up in landfills, ‘The Star’ newspaper reported in January.
It quoted other waste experts as saying that at least 10 million single-use face masks are used and discarded daily in Malaysia. The wearing of face masks, commonly made from mixtures of non-woven artificial fabrics and polypropylene thermoplastic, has been mandatory in public since August 2020.
Malaysia has among the highest per capita usage of plastic in Southeast Asia, World Wildlife Fund-Malaysia said in a September 2020 report. Its annual plastic consumption of 16.78 kg per person is higher than the four other countries covered by the WWF report - Thailand (15.52kg), and Vietnam (12.93kg), Indonesia (12.5kg), the Philippines (12.4kg).
Plastic holds the second largest share in Malaysia’s overall generated waste, the same report said.
It singled out Malaysia's high plastic usage due to its prevalent "takeaway culture," tropical climate and the lack of a proper recycling system. "With the ease and convenience of buying readily cooked food in Malaysia from hawker stalls and restaurants, many households commonly opt for takeaway food," the report said.
There is no system where low-value recyclables, including multilayer packaging, could be sorted and separated, it added. WWF estimates the plastic recycling rate to be at around 20%.
Thus, we saw an escalation in Malaysians’ plastic usage during the COVID-19 pandemic.
(*This feature is part of Reporting ASEAN’s Sustainability Series.)