Southeast Asia is seeing more calls to ban plastic bags, and Lilia Casanova has a front-row seat to the debate in the Philippines.
Casanova, a board member of the Solid Waste Management Association of the Philippines, said she does not agree with the local governments in her country that have banned or restricted bags.
But she said she understands the motivation. Bags get blamed for contributing to environmental problems such as clogged drains, street flooding and harming marine life, she said.
“I understand the problem. In metro Manila, every time it rains the streets are flooded,” said Casanova, who wrote an essay in May for the Asian Scientist Magazine titled “Don't Ban Plastic Bags, Use Them Wisely.”
She believes the bag bans demonstrate that Asia, with a few exceptions, comes up short in managing solid waste.
It's a hot topic. Environmental groups in the Philippines last month called for extending the patchwork of local bans nationwide. The government in Vietnam's largest city, Ho Chi Minh, in May said it wanted to ban free plastic takeout bags.
And Malaysia last year began a nationwide one-day-a-week ban on free bags in most stores. One local government there, in Penang, took it a step further with its own seven-day-a-week ban.
Bag ban advocates in Southeast Asia say growing wealth and more people are leading to more trash.
Malaysia, for example, has seen its waste generated go from 37 million pounds in 2002 to 55 million pounds today and likely 66 million pounds by 2020, with 95 percent sent to landfills, according to government figures.
The reason is “greater economic growth, high population and affluent lifestyles,” according to the written text of a Malaysian government minister's presentation to a plastics industry event in June.
But bag-ban advocates say a lack of government attention to waste and recycling is also a problem.
Plastic bags contribute to flooding in Malaysia, with flash floods made worse by drains clogged by debris, silt and other byproducts of development, said Anthony Tan, executive director of the Centre for Environment, Technology and Development, Malaysia, which wants to expand the once-a-week bag ban.
“They cannot afford to have plastic bags clog up their drainage system,” said Tan, who said the flooding closed schools in one nearby city in recent months. “It is not solely because of plastic bags, for sure… [but] the misuse of plastic bags accelerates environmental devastation.”
Nithi Nesadurai, president of the Environmental Protection Society Malaysia, said the “staggering” volume of bags is visual pollution, and there's concern they are not biodegradable.
“There is a general excessive use of packaging in society,” he said.
The seven-day-a-week ban in the Malaysian state of Penang has worked and should be expanded nationwide, he said: “This is a very successful case where the use of disincentives for the environment, like payment for plastic bags, leads to a positive change in behavior.”
The Malaysian Plastics Manufacturers Association says the problem is littering, not plastic bags or even plastic.
“Littering causes a danger of clogging drains and flooding, and that by itself is an issue we recognize. But more important, if it doesn't clog the drains it becomes marine litter in the ocean,” said MPMA President Lim Kok Boon. “The issue to address is not about banning plastics but about addressing littering.”
MPMA in June launched an anti-littering campaign and has other efforts in schools to promote reducing consumption, reuse and recycling.
Malaysian industry officials believe plastics get unfairly targeted as a major use of resources. Plastics in all uses, not only bags, consume about 4 percent of the world's oil, compared with more than 40 percent for transport, MPMA said.
And when plastic bags are stacked up against other packaging in a life-cycle analysis, the picture is complicated, Lim said.
He cited a 2011 U.K. government study that found that the energy used to make a cotton bag means it would have to be reused 131 times to equal the carbon footprint of one plastic bag used once. A paper bag would have to be reused three times. The study has been withdrawn pending a legal challenge.
Still, one retailer in Malaysia sees abandoning plastic bags as a step toward saving resources.
When Ikea Malaysia announced in mid-2011 it would go beyond the national law and become the first store there to stop using the bags altogether, it said it wanted to change consumer habits.
“Ikea Malaysia will stop offering plastic bags to its customers, as plastic bags are harmful to the environment,” the company said in a statement.
“We hope to ignite a change in the general attitude towards plastic bags usage and encourage a new habit of carrying a reusable bag wherever we go. This will hopefully help consumers understand the importance of conservation of resources.”
Bag-ban supporter Tan said plastics, as a non-renewable resource, should be used in products that last a long time, such as insulation in housing, rather than short-lifespan products like bags.
The bag ban is part of a larger strategy to reduce consumption and slow climate change, he said. Malaysia's government said its dependence on landfills will increase carbon dioxide emissions by 50 percent by 2020, so it advocates reducing waste going to landfills by 40 percent.
Both industry and environmental groups seem to agree on the need for stronger waste-collection systems.
For some places, that will not be so easy, Casanova said. Malaysia is better positioned than most of its neighbors because it's wealthier, she said, and the government there plans in September to start weekly collection of recyclables from households.
But in less-wealthy countries like Cambodia and Laos, it's more “problematic,” she said.
Casanova, who formerly was deputy director of the U.N. Environmental Program's International Environmental Technology Center in Japan and now is executive director of the Center for Advanced Philippine Studies in Quezon City, said she believes bans cover up for a lack of sound government policy.
“A total ban on plastic bags will only gloss over the lack of an effective environmental management policy in a given country,” she wrote.