As more places around the world seek to ban or limit plastic bags, Malaysia's plastics industry association believes it has persuaded the national government there to look at alternatives beyond more bans.
The Southeast Asian nation of 27 million people last year enacted a one-day-a-week ban on free bags in stores, and one state government has gone further and prohibited free bags at retailers seven days a week.
But the Malaysian Plastics Manufacturers Association believes it won't be expanded beyond that, owing to a combination of factors, including negative public reaction, industry efforts to cut litter and an unexpected shift of sales from big grocery stores to smaller wet markets, which sell fresh food.
“Right now what we are seeing is we do have a nationwide ban every Saturday … but we do not expect this policy will be expanded throughout the week,” MPMA President Lim Kok Boon said in a late-June interview in the group's offices in Petaling Jaya, near Kuala Lumpur.
The national government seems inclined to find different ways to work with industry and other groups, Lim said.
“They recognize that solid waste is an issue,” said Lim. “They also recognize that if it is done together with the support in a holistic manner with the industry, it makes it easier for everyone, including themselves.”
In some parts of the world, bag bans and restrictions seem the order of the day. The United States, for example, has seen 42 cities adopt bag bans this year, bringing the total there to 79.
But Lim believes Malaysia will not follow that path. However, environmental groups say the public supports bans as a way to fight litter, reduce excessive packaging and conserve resources.
“People in Penang have adjusted to the ban and it has become a non-issue,” said Nithi Nesadurai, president of the Environmental Protection Society Malaysia, referring to that state's seven-day-a-week ban.
Also, the country's opposition political party, which controls Penang and a handful of other states, has advocated stronger bans. Some observers said that helped nudge the federal government to pass its nationwide one-day-a-week ban.
Lim, who also is CEO of GW Plastics Holding Berhad in Rawang, Malaysia, believes industry efforts toward reducing bag waste and litter are being recognized.
The MPMA launched an anti-litter campaign in June, and the country's vice-general secretary of housing and local government, the agency with jurisdiction over waste issues, spoke at the association's annual dinner, where it kicked off its campaign.
“We have a very, very good working relationship with [the federal government],” Lim said. “We do not have any direct answers from them [on the future direction of bag bans], they are of course still evaluating the situation. But I can see that the public is not exactly that happy with even the Saturday ban.”
That's partly because people in Malaysia commonly reuse their shopping bags as garbage bags, he said. Garbage bin manufacturers design their bins to fit shopping bags, Lim said.
Where the ban has been implemented every day, in Penang state, sales of plastic shopping bags have dropped 10 percent; while sales of plastic garbage bags have gone up 15 percent, Lim said, mirroring trends in some other countries where bans on shopping bags have actually increased sales of garbage bags.
“This is not an economy like Japan or Europe,” he said. “There are many, many people on the street where every single cent counts.”
But others, like Anthony Tan, executive director of the Centre for Environment, Technology and Development, Malaysia, said the public generally supports the ban and it's helping to make people more familiar with reducing waste, reusing packaging and ultimately reducing carbon footprints.
Lim believes there's another reason the ban will not be expanded — the country's big retailers are no longer as supportive of the idea, as some have lost sales to small shops that still provide free bags.
“[Big retailers] have found to their horror that there was a shift in the buying pattern of their customers away from buying from them to the wet markets and grocery stalls,” Lim said. “We don't see the retailers now pushing for [expanding the ban] anymore.”
For the plastic bag makers, the bag restrictions in Malaysia have not had a major impact economically. The total amount of plastic they use to make bags has not decreased, only shifted from shopping bags to other uses, even in Penang, Lim said.
Lim maintains MPMA has tried to defend bags and promote the positive attributes of plastic, such as making cars lighter to save on gas.
For example, he said industry launched a multiyear anti-litter campaign in June with a budget of $188,000, more than 20 percent of the association's annual spending. It also works with schools to promote messages about recycling and waste reduction.
Additionally, MPMA three years ago proposed a bag recycling effort working with retailers. The association designed bins that could be placed in stores to collect bags for recycling.
But the proposal was not picked up by retailers, so bag recycling in Malaysia is not as common as in the U.S. or England, Lim said.
“We were prepared to finance the bins … we were prepared to get people to collect it,” Lim said. “Unfortunately, for various reasons, the retailers interestingly were not keen to support this.”
As part of that, MPMA also made a promotion video with a Malaysian TV celebrity to help educate people about the importance of using fewer bags, reusing them and recycling leftover bags, he said.
Starting in the middle of next year, the industry plans to broaden its anti-littering message to talk about the role of plastics in conserving natural resources, a message that the public in Malaysia is not as familiar with, he said.
“We are laying the foundation,” Lim said. “In the past we used to run around defending plastics before we talked about anything else. We find that it's a bit difficult for the public to accept.”