Drowning In Plastic And The Impacts On Vulnerable Communities

When we hear or talk about environmental issues, it is mostly about how our actions and activities are affecting the environment from melting ice caps to deforestation and its impact on rainforest biodiversity. But too often we neglect the human aspect, particularly the most marginalised and vulnerable communities who are the ones that bear the brunt of most environmental disasters.

Malaysia’s vulnerable communities are especially susceptible to plastic pollution, from health problems to poor aesthetics. And due to poor waste management, importation of plastic waste and rapid economic growth, many such communities are practically drowning in plastic. Here’s the extent of plastic pollution today and how Malaysia’s most vulnerable communities are affected by them.

Source: Science

The Plastic Problem

Plastics produced from fossil fuels are only a century old, and yet it forms an important part of our daily lives. It is used to store food and water, make protective gear such as helmets and save lives with medical incubators and other such devices[1].

But it also has a dark side; our dependence on single-use plastics (such as grocery bags and food and beverage containers) created a throw-away culture that prioritises convenience over durability, a culture that is slowly killing our planet.

Since 1950, the production of plastic has dramatically increased from only 2 million tonnes per year to 381 million tonnes in 2015, roughly equivalent to the mass of two-thirds of the world population[2]

Packaging (including single-use food and beverage containers) made up 42% of that amount[2]. Malaysia alone has over 1,300 plastic manufacturers, making it one of the biggest players in the global plastic market[3].

As of 2020, Malaysia ranks as one of the biggest plastic producers in the world; a 2019 study commissioned by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) reports that Malaysia has an annual per capita plastic use of 16.78 kg per person, much higher than China, Indonesia, Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam[4].

These numbers should be worrying especially in light of how much plastic ends up in our oceans; plastic waste makes up 80% of all marine pollution (in fact, there are about 50-75 trillion pieces of plastic and microplastics in the ocean) and around 8 to 10 million metric tons of plastic end up in the ocean each year[5].

Research states that if the current rate continues, by 2050 the amount of plastic in the ocean will likely outweigh all of its fish[5].

Most significantly to us, Malaysia had produced more than 0.94 million tonnes of mismanaged plastic wastes per year by 2018, of which 0.14 to 0.37 million tonnes may have been washed into the oceans[6].

Source: BBC

And whatever doesn’t end up in our oceans will end up in our landfills. Despite efforts to improve our total recycling rate, Malaysia is still quite behind compared to other developed countries at a rate of 28%. This issue is worsened by both Malaysia’s limited recycling process and capabilities and the fact that our recycling efforts are largely focused on plastics that are easily retrievable and highly valued such as plastic drink bottles. Because of this, our country’s landfills are filled to the brim with disposable food packaging made from low-quality plastics[7].

Further exacerbating the problem is that many wealthy countries such as the USA, Canada and France will ship their own plastic waste off to lower-income countries, hoping that these countries will do the disposal for them.

Until recently, Malaysia had been receiving huge amounts of plastic waste imports from the USA and the European Union; in 2018, the country took in 870,000 metric tonnes of plastic imports, three times the level it received in 2016.

This excess waste had led to the opening of illegal factories that burnt the plastic and released toxic fumes. Fortunately, Malaysia had banned such imports, sending back 3,737 metric tonnes of plastic waste to their original countries[8].

[The] Malaysian government is serious about combating the import of illegal wastes as we do not want to be the garbage bin of the world. – Yeo Bee Yin, Minister of Energy, Science, Technology, Environment, and Climate Change[8]

Source: The Rakyat Post/Credit: Sayuti Zainudin/Malay Mail

The Plastic Plight

Sadly, the damage has already been done. Many of our poorest communities are disproportionately affected by plastic pollution.

Plastic waste is a major issue in Malaysia. It is sad many people still take this issue lightly. For example, many traders still prefer to use non-environmentally-friendly plastic bags because these are cheaper than biodegradable ones. – Dr Mohd Yusoff Ishak, Universiti Putra Malaysia Faculty of Forestry and Environment senior lecturer[9]

Source: Sail World Cruising

Coastal and island communities bear the worst of the impacts. Malaysia’s coastal communities depend upon fishing and tourism to support their livelihoods. But plastic debris on beaches and in the sea will drive tourists away, depriving low-and middle-income coastal and island communities of one of their primary sources of revenue. And cleaning these beaches will require expensive clean-up operations that such communities may not be able to afford[10].

Adding to this problem, microplastics can negatively impact marine ecosystems, reducing the number of catches fishermen make and thus affecting both their income and food supply. Furthermore, consuming fish and seafood contaminated with microplastics can lead to health problems[11].

In 2018, a nationwide beach clean-up of 16 beaches in Malaysia organised by Reef Check Malaysia (RCM) collected over 15,874 plastic water bottles and 6,884 plastic bags, a stark reminder of how much plastic debris ends up on our beaches[12].

Source: Reef Check

Plastic waste not only endangers the livelihoods of those relying on marine resources, it also causes a raft of health issues for people who consume seafood infested with toxic micro and nano plastics. Women, in particular, suffer from plastic-related toxicity risk, due to higher aggregate exposure to plastics at home and even in feminine care products. – UN Environment Programme (UNEP)[13]

Many rural low-income communities are also located near landfills, exposing them to various problems relating to plastic pollution. The town of Jenjarom, Kuala Langat, located near Port Klang, suffered from this problem when Malaysia was still importing plastic waste from other countries to the point that it became synonymous with plastic waste[14].

Around this time, 33 illegal factories had sprung up within the district, some of which were located close to Jenjarom. Such close proximity proved to be a danger when these factories started burning their plastic waste, exposing the town’s residents to toxic fumes and causing all manner of health problems[14].

Belle Tan and her son. Source: BBC

He got a really bad rash around his stomach, neck, legs and arms. His skin would keep peeling, even when we touched him it hurt. I was angry and scared for his health but what could I do? The smell was everywhere in the air. – Belle Tan, a Jenjarom resident, spoke about the toxic fumes’ impact on her then 11-year-old son[14]

To make things worse, research in 2018 found that certain chemicals used in plastics such as Bisphenol A are carcinogenic and linked to endocrine disruption (potentially causing reproductive and neurological problems and negatively affecting immune systems) and adverse developmental consequences in children (such as early puberty). The same year also found that plastics degrading from sunlight exposure also contribute to greenhouse gas emissions[10].

The main thing about [these plastic fumes] is that they are carcinogenic… It also depends a lot on the types of plastics being burnt and the exposure to it. If you have short-term exposure at a high level you might have difficulty breathing… [or it might] trigger some effects in your lungs. But if it’s long-term exposure… that’s where the carcinogenic effects come in. – Tong Yen Wah, National University of Singapore (NUS)’s Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering professor[14]

Even with these illegal factories shut down, Jenjarom and other communities living near landfills still have to contend with the plastic waste that had accumulated in such sites. Plastic containers can accumulate water, serving as a breeding ground for mosquitoes and other disease vectors. And when these plastics break down into microplastics, they will contaminate the soil and thus have detrimental effects on rural farming as well as increasing people’s exposure to such hazardous materials[10].

Source: BBC

Finally, should plastic waste accumulate in our rivers, not only will it likely end up in the ocean but it can also increase the frequency of flash floods by disrupting the rivers’ natural flow or blocking drainage pipes. These floods will also carry plastic waste into people’s homes, further burdening them and their communities[10].

The impact of plastics on vulnerable populations goes well beyond inefficient and sometimes non-existing waste management systems. It starts with issues related to oil extraction, through toxic environments and greenhouse gas emissions, and it even impacts water distribution policies. – Juliano Calil, senior research fellow at the Centre for the Blue Economy[15]

What Can You Do To Plug The Plastic Problem

Combatting the plastic problem starts with you. Here’s how the public and businesses can help curb our plastic waste situation and create a more environmentally-responsible society:

Source: The Star
  1. Reduce: Avoid using plastic straws (consider using biodegradable or reusable metal straws). Instead of plastic bags, bring along personal shopping bags to hold your groceries. Similarly, consider bringing metal or reusable containers to carry your food with.
  2. Reuse: Don’t throw away your plastic shopping bags! Reuse them for your next shopping trip or line your bins with them. You can also reuse your plastic drink bottles to contain water, dish soap and other liquids.
  3. Recycle: Always put recyclables in the correct container. Make sure they are cleaned out properly.
  4. Educate: Raise awareness of the plastic waste problem and how it affects both the environment and our society.
  5. Protest: If there are any illegal landfills near where you live, make sure the government knows their there, what the operators are doing and how it is affecting you and your community.
  6. Pick-up: See a plastic bottle or food container where it doesn’t belong? Pick it up and throw it away into the proper container. You can even organise ‘gotong-royongs’ to get everyone in your community involved in cleaning up plastic trash.

Organisations That Are Fighting The Plastic Problem

Here are some organisations that are working to end our country’s plastic waste problems:

Klean Reverse Vending: An AI-Driven Recycling platform that promotes recycling through behavioural change by incentivisation. Citizens can deposit recyclable plastics in the Reverse Vending Machine (RVM) in return for KLEAN points that can be redeemed for various rewards.

Trash Hero Malaysia: The Trash Hero mission is to bring communities together to clean and reduce waste, through Action and Awareness, Education, Sustainable Projects and Inspiration.

Ecoknights: As part of its goal to empower people to live sustainably, Ecoknights, together with Coway Malaysia, works to raise awareness on solid waste challenges at several ecosystems. This partnership aims to create a meaningful impact to protect ecosystems and encourage sustainable waste management.

Reef Check Malaysia: As part of its mission to protect our country’s reefs, Reef Check Malaysia (RCM) is actively involved in marine debris awareness, waste management, and plastic recycling programmes and has been leading the annual International Coastal Cleanup event in Malaysia.

Explore our sources:

  1. L. Parker (2019) The world’s plastic pollution crisis explained. National Geographic. Link.
  2. Plastic Pollution (2018, updated in 2022) Our World in Data. Link.
  3. Malaysia’s Roadmap Towards Zero Use of Single Use Plastics 2018-2030 (2019) Link.
  4. WWF Releases Report Proposing Effective Solution to Mitigate Plastic Pollution in Malaysia (2020) WWF. Link.
  5. M. Fava (2022) Ocean plastic pollution an overview: data and statistics. UNESCO Ocean Literacy Portal. Link.
  6. H.L. Chen, T.K. Nath, S.C., Vernon Foo, C.G. & A.M. Lechner (2021) The plastic waste problem in Malaysia: management, recycling and disposal of local and global plastic waste. SN Applied Sciences. Link.
  7. K. Kaur (2021) Malaysia’s Plastic Problem Everyone Forgot – What You Can Do About It. The Rakyat Post. Link.
  8. B. Wiggins (2020) Malaysia Just Sent Tons of Plastic Waste Back to Rich Countries. Global Citizen. Link.
  9. Bernama (2022) Tough for Malaysia to meet zero single-use plastic target by 2030. New Straits Times. Link.
  10. UN Environment Programme (2021) NEGLECTED: Environmental Justice Impacts of Marine Litter and Plastic Pollution. Link.
  11. The Reality of Plastic Pollution in Vulnerable Asian Communities (n.d.) Tontoton. Link.
  12. J. Hyde (2018) Our beaches are plastered with plastic rubbish. New Straits Times. Link.
  13. UN: plastic waste affects disadvantaged people the most (2021) Sustainability Times. Link.
  14. Y. Tan (2019) Plastic pollution: One town smothered by 17,000 tonnes of rubbish. BBC. Link.
  15. O. Rosane (2021) ‘Plastic Pollution Is a Social Justice Issue,’ New Report Warns. EcoWatch. Link.

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