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Circular Economy For Plastic In Malaysia – Are We On Track? [Opinion]

Circular Economy For Plastic In Malaysia – Are We On Track? [Opinion]

Post-consumer plastic waste generation in Malaysia is estimated to be more than 1 million tonnes.

WWF-Malaysia and the Ministry of Environment and Water (KASA)

Plastic, dubbed a miracle invention due to its durability and versatility, has made our lives substantially easier. However, 60 years after its invention, managing plastic waste has become one of the planet’s biggest problems.

The statistics are alarming, with mass production and consumption of plastic on the rise since 1950. According to a report published by WWF-Malaysia, post-consumer plastic waste generation in Malaysia is estimated to be more than 1 million tonnes (1,070,064 tonnes, to be precise).

Plastics can in fact be reused and recycled into usable products. However, 81% of the material value of plastics is lost due to failure to recover the material. This results in USD1.1 billion (RM4.82 billion) of potential material value lost to Malaysia’s economy, as reported in a study by the World Bank. Just like any other packaging material, plastic requires proper segregation, collection, material recovery, treatment, and final disposals. Currently, the largest segment of demand growth for plastic production is predominantly single-use plastic. Encouragingly, there have been global movements to advocate for a transition from a linear plastic system to a circular one.

Credit: Malay Mail

A circular economy for plastic builds on three key principles – the elimination of waste and pollution, circulation of materials at the highest value for as long as possible, and regeneration of resources. A circular economy envisions resources to be responsibly managed, recovered, and reused to their fullest potential. It provides us the opportunity to prosper through greater resiliency, while significantly reducing greenhouse gas emissions, waste, and pollution.

In 2021, The Ministry of Environment and Water (KASA) launched the Malaysia Plastics Sustainability Roadmap, 2021 – 2030 which governs plastic production, consumption, recycling and waste management in a holistic manner.

This Roadmap demonstrates the initiative of the Ministry to shift the plastic economy to a circular one and offer new ways to mitigate emerging risks to allow the plastics industry to innovate.

The Roadmap sets six time-bound national targets. A list of problematic and unnecessary single-use plastics (SUPs) will be identified, followed by phasing them out by 2030 through redesign, innovation, and reuse models. The Ministry aims to achieve a plastic recycling rate of an average of 25% for post-consumer plastic packaging by 2025, 100% recyclability of plastic packaging, and 15% of average recycled content by 2030 for plastic products and packaging. In addition, the Roadmap targets 76% of plastic waste to be collected for recycling purposes by 2030.

Credit: Malay Mail

In order to achieve the national targets, several strategies were crafted from public consultations. At the downstream level, there is a need to improve collection and sorting facilities. Currently, there is a limitation of recycling capacity, as not all plastic materials can be recycled, nor economical to be recycled due to contamination, and difficulties to disassemble with combinations of different materials and additives. The Roadmap sets out a way forward to build capacity and adopt new technologies for reprocessing to achieve higher recovery rates, and manufacturing of recycled products to establish a closed-loop supply chain. It also calls for financial institutions to integrate the circularity business models in their investment and financing policies, product development, and client engagements.

The plastics problem is so large that simply expanding waste collection, landfills, incineration, and recycling is insufficient. The most significant step would be to combine these measures with a reduction of plastic in the system, rethink packaging and product designs and business models, such as scaling up reuse and refillable models. Finally, they have to be supported by standards, policies and regulations, to enable the circular economy to thrive.

The Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) system is a critical policy approach to accelerate the transition to sustainable waste management and a circular model for plastic. KASA is developing a governance framework and laying out an implementation plan and various EPR capacity-building programmes to uplift industry readiness for the adoption of a voluntary EPR system from 2023, before imposing a nationwide mandatory EPR system by 2026. Under the EPR system, the responsibility of the producer goes beyond waste treatment and recycling. It addresses at least four key issues that include waste avoidance, prevention and minimisation of material use; waste collection and sorting; material recovery, recycling and reuse; and proper treatment and disposal of wastes with minimal environmental and social impact.

For Malaysia to embark on the transition and to achieve the time-bound goals in the Roadmap, we need businesses and consumers to start acknowledging the problem and take accountability to mitigate the risk of being hit by the plastic and packaging pollution crisis. It is crucial to keep track of the national progress and to identify effective measures to close the gaps. In line with this, a multi-stakeholder, national-level Think Tank and Working Groups have been established by the Ministry, represented by government agencies, industry and industry associations, SMEs, academic institutions and civil societies. More participation from the private sector is needed to champion this initiative to collectively work together and find solutions to end plastic pollution.

Credit: Malay Mail

WWF-Malaysia (World Wide Fund for Nature-Malaysia) was established in Malaysia in 1972. It currently runs projects covering a diverse range of environmental conservation and protection work, from saving endangered species such as tigers and turtles to protecting our highland forests, rivers, and seas. The national conservation organisation also undertakes environmental education and advocacy work to achieve its conservation goals. Its mission is to stop the degradation of the earth’s natural environment and to build a future in which humans live in harmony with nature, by conserving the nation’s biological diversity, ensuring that the use of renewable natural resources is sustainable, and promoting the reduction of pollution and wasteful consumption.

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