Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Letter to the Editor: Make Environment A Priority, Not An Afterthought

It is heartening to know that 69% of Malaysian voters consider environmental protection to be one of the factors that will influence the way they will vote in the upcoming General Elections (The Star, Sun 15 March 2018: https://www.thestar.com.my/news/nation/2018/04/15/pakatan-manifesto-on-environmental-protection-more-specific-say-activists/).
For far too long, sustainability and environmental conservation have been put on the backburner or seen as something ideal but inessential. In recent years, the destruction and human suffering caused by the East Coast floods, the 2014 droughts which led to water rationing in Selangor, the pollution of water sources in Cameron Highlands, reduced fish bycatch, the clearing of more land and forest for highway and infrastructure construction, the recurring haze, wildlife deaths and the economic uncertainty arising from the European Parliament’s proposed ban on palm oil biodiesel from Malaysia for environmental reasons have all played a role in raising public awareness on the interconnectedness of human and environmental well-being.
Having perused the election manifestos of both political coalitions, however, I am of the opinion that more specific, effective and convincing pledges need to be made. As we are all aware, the actions of legislators and governmental decision-makers are often inconsistent with their pledges. Some of these inconsistencies are pointed out below:
Both coalitions pledge to take action to reduce carbon emissions by way of measures such as cleaner diesel and petrol and increasing the development and use of renewable energy.
Yet at the same time Barisan Nasional’s pledges to accelerate the growth of the oil and gas industries, its Forest Economy Policy which focus is on income generation and not conservation and its proposals to construct more roads and highways effectively efface any good that its plans to introduce electric buses, switch to LED lights and create urban parks and recreational areas could potentially create.
Pakatan Harapan has pledged to promote the development and use of green technology and renewable energy and halt Barisan Nasional’s plans to construct a nuclear power plant, but at the same time plans to reintroduce petroleum subsidies and construct more roads and highways.
Both coalitions should instead focus on policies to reduce reliance on private vehicle ownership and driving, by establishing reliable and affordable non-fossil fuel powered public transport systems, creating incentives for telecommuting and upgrading existing road and rail infrastructure instead of opening up more land for highways and roads.
Both coalitions pledged to curtail illegal logging and manage forests and forest resources sustainably, despite their existing history of doing the exact opposite. Barisan Nasional had authorized logging and forest clearing in Ulu Muda, Merapoh and Terenggun, among others, despite knowing the importance of the ecosystem services provided by these forest reserves.
Similarly, Pakatan Harapan in its previous election manifesto had pledged to gazette and conserve forests and halt illegal logging, but went on to degazette parts of the Selangor State Park for the construction of the East Klang Valley Expressway (EKVE), and this action makes voters now wary about their lofty promises to halt deforestation.
Both coalitions pledged to preserve biodiversity and wildlife populations, yet under their watch, the construction of yet more highways and roads has opened up access to wildlife for poachers and wildlife traffickers, and caused an alarming increase in wildlife roadkill.
The rakyat needs to witness sincerity on the part of the political leaders in protecting forests, water catchment areas and environmentally sensitive areas. No amount of public relations exercises comprising the planting of trees in urban parks is able to reverse the adverse impact of rampant deforestation, fragmentation of wildlife habitats and the opening up of more land for infrastructure projects.
Both coalitions promised to improve solid waste collection services and ease of recycling. Yet Barisan Nasional proposed to reverse the ban on free plastic bags in Pakatan states, and has allowed the plastics manufacturing industry to be a powerful lobby. In Pakatan states, the ban on free plastic bags has normalized waste reduction practices and encouraged consumer environmental responsibility, but the replacement of styrofoam food packaging with other forms of plastic packaging that are neither biodegradable nor collected and recovered for recycling has cancelled some of the benefits of the plastic bag and styrofoam ban.
According to a 2015 study published in Science journal, Malaysia is among the top 8 highest-offending ocean plastic polluters in the world. Malaysia is one of the 200 countries which signed the December 2017 UN resolution on microplastics and marine litter, but has to date not been seen to do anything constructive to reduce plastics production, consumption and disposal, although the Selangor State Government has been regularly cleaning up its beaches, which, while commendable, constitutes a treatment of the symptoms and not the cause.
Both coalitions need to create incentives for waste reduction and alternatives to plastics and other harmful and wasteful materials and industries. The environment cannot wait. Already human and animal health and food security have been adversely affected by plastics pollution and poor waste management practices.
Voters are becoming better informed, and will not stand for environmental tokenism by either political coalition. It cannot be the job of concerned citizens, non-governmental organisations and volunteers alone to protect and speak up for Malaysia’s natural environment and resources. Malaysia stands to gain more economic benefits and ecosystem services from keeping its forests, mangroves and other environmentally-sensitive areas intact and biologically diverse, than from issuing permits for logging, mining and road construction. The time to act for the environment is now. Environmental conservation should be each political coalition’s main consideration in all its policies and decisions, and not an afterthought.

Monday, March 19, 2018

What's the problem with monoculture crops?

Compiled and edited by Wong Ee Lynn
European lawmakers recently approved a plan to meet climate goals, which includes a ban on the use of palm oil, including palm oil from Malaysia, in motor fuels from 2021.
This move has a significant negative impact on Malaysia’s economy because from the 2 million tonnes of palm oil Malaysia exports to Europe, over 30% is used for biodiesel.
The reason for this proposed ban is because large areas of tropical forests, wildlife habitats and other ecosystems with high conservation value have been cleared to make room for oil palm plantations.
One of the reasons why conventional oil palm cultivation is so destructive to rainforests, wildlife populations and the climate is because it is a monoculture crop. Although this is not the only reason oil palm is environmentally problematic, there are certainly many environmental problems associated with monoculture, i.e. the growing of only one type of crop in a given area at the same time.
Oil palm isn’t the only monoculture crop. Modern commercial agriculture often seeks to increase yield – and so profits – by cultivating a single type of plant. The farmer only needs to provide for the needs of a single species in order to grow a successful crop, and this means increased savings and hence increased profits for the farmer. Corn, barley, wheat, soybean and similar crops are mostly cultivated as monoculture crops as well.
Monoculture agriculture may be more efficient and inexpensive for farmer, but it has significant negative impacts on the environment, some of which are identified below:
Eliminates Biological Controls

In a monoculture system, there is no range of insect species in a location to ensure that a single population does not get too large and damage too many plants. There are no varieties of plant that naturally provide nutrients to the soil, such as nitrogen-fixing legumes, or ground cover crops that can be slashed and left to improve the nutrient content of the topsoil, or a variety of plants with different root depths to reduce erosion. There are fewer species of microorganism and bacteria on the soil as there are fewer nutrients available for them to survive on.
More Synthetic Material Use

A diverse ecosystem provides natural checks-and-balances to keep the soil and plants healthy. A monoculture production has to use large quantities of synthetic herbicides, insecticides, bactericides and fertilizers to replicate some of these ways nature uses to protect crops.
Changing Organism Resistance

Nature is adaptable, and this means organisms are evolving resistance to these artificial insecticides and herbicides. Of course, the farmers want to continue to protect their crops, so new inorganic methods are continually being developed to kill pests, fungus and weeds. More and more chemicals are being applied to monoculture crops and, in turn, adversely affecting natural ecosystems and human health.
Soil Degradation

In monoculture plantations, ground cover crops are eliminated, meaning there is no natural protection for the soil from erosion by wind and rain. Degraded soil becomes unusable for agriculture after a few years. In some countries, forests are then cleared to provide new agricultural land, starting the damaging cycle all over again.
Water Use

With no ground cover plants to help improve moisture retention in the soil, and the tendency for land planted with a monoculture to lack topsoil, which serves to increase rain runoff, modern monoculture agriculture requires huge amounts of water to irrigate the crops. This means water is being pumped from lakes, rivers and reservoirs at great rates, depleting this natural resource and affecting those aquatic ecosystems. This is on top of the pollution of water sources by agricultural chemicals.
Fossil Fuels

Due to their scale, harvesting of crops in monoculture farms is generally performed by machines. Large amounts of fossil fuels are required to sort, pack and transport the crops.
In combination with the chemical fertilisers and pesticides, the industrialised mode of food production is a major contributor to climate change. It is also an incredibly inefficient way of using energy to produce food, taking an estimated 10 calories of fossil-fuel energy to produce just a single calorie of food energy.

Q: I’m Not a Farmer, So What Can I Do?

For starters, you can try:
·        Reading your labels and buying fewer or no products originating from monoculture crops. This will often mean buying organic cocoa and coffee grown in bird-friendly plantations (these plantations have a diversity of trees and plants to provide bird and wildlife habitats), buying organic products that are certified sustainable, and buying fewer or no processed food items such as instant noodles and biscuits, as these often contain vegetable oil from crops grown on monoculture farms.
·        Eating less or no meat so the demand for grain crops (mostly corn and soy) for animal feed will decrease and the need for monoculture will decrease as well. More than 60% of crops, particularly soy and corn, is used to feed animals, not people. It would take less land, water and soil to grow enough crops for human consumption, than to grow crops as animal feed so that the animals can in turn be consumed by humans.
·        Buying from farms that are known to practice crop rotation, or which grow a variety of crops.
·        Purchasing locally-grown produce, especially from small organic farms, edible gardens, cooperatives and indigenous communities, instead of crops from big agricultural companies.
·        Growing your own vegetables and herbs, which is good for your health and finances as well as the environment!
(Environmental issues specific to conventional oil palm cultivation will be discussed in the May 2018 Green Living Column.)

Thursday, February 1, 2018

Letter to the Editor: Oxo-degradable Plastic Bags Not Better For Environment

While I applaud Sibu Municipal Council’s efforts to reduce plastic pollution by banning non-biodegradable plastic bags (‘Sibu’s Tough Stand Against Plastic’, The Star, 22 Jan 2018), its proposal to replace conventional plastic bags with purportedly ‘biodegradable’ plastic bags poses fresh environmental problems.
The plastic pollution reduction regulations and policies currently in place in Malaysia seem to mostly encourage the replacement of conventional plastic bags with paper bags, purportedly ‘biodegradable’ plastic bags and cheap non-woven shopping bags. In addition, styrofoam food packaging is merely replaced with other types of non-foam plastic food packaging, and so far there does not appear to be any organised or official effort to recover, collect and clean these types of plastic packaging for recycling. None of these items introduced to replace conventional plastic and styrofoam products are actual alternatives, as they are unsustainable and do not reduce waste.
Most commercially-available and inexpensive ‘biodegradable’ plastic bags are still plastic and fossil fuel-based. Only bags that conform to compostability standards ASTM D6400 or EN 13432 are truly biodegradable.
Oxo-degradable, oxo-biodegradable, oxy-degradable, oxy-biodegradable and degradable plastic bags are all merely names for plastic bags with a chemical additive. This chemical additive, usually metal salts (which may include cobalt depending on the manufacturer), breaks the plastic molecular ties and catalyses the disintegration of the plastic. Over time, these bags break down into smaller, more toxic petro-polymers, which eventually contaminate our soil and water, and enter the animal and human food chain. Therefore, although these purportedly ‘greener’ plastic bags break down into fragments in landfills and waterways, they contribute to microplastic pollution, posing a risk to marine and other ecosystems.
In fact, over 150 environmental organisations, non-profit organisations, research and scientific institutions and public bodies have recently called for a ban on oxo-degradable plastics. Oxo-degradable plastics are also increasingly facing opposition in Europe, and the United Nations Environment Programme’s chief scientist Prof. Jacqueline McGlade confirmed that a lot of plastics labelled biodegradable never fully break down and thus contribute to plastic pollution. Further, because these oxo-degradable plastics have a chemical additive, they cannot be safely recycled and can end up contaminating other types of plastics in recycling facilities.
As for paper bags, although they are truly biodegradable as long as they do not have a plastic coating, plastic-based glue or laminate, they do have a high environmental cost, as they require more water and energy to produce compared to plastic bags. However, as they are less harmful to wildlife and less toxic to human health once discarded, they can be safely used as food packaging. Still, replacing plastic bags with paper bags does not reduce waste, as paper bags are typically single-use due to their low durability, and cannot be recycled once wet or contaminated with food, grease and dirt. Considering the high water and energy use and low durability of paper packaging, the use of paper bags should be restricted to the sale and serving of food, and not as grocery bags and shopping carrier bags, and consumers should still be charged a fee for paper bags and paper-based food packaging to reduce reliance on single-use packaging and to encourage behavioural change, in that consumers would be more motivated to save money by bringing their own reusable food and beverage containers and shopping bags.
The other unsustainable item frequently marketed as a sustainable alternative to plastic bags are non-woven shopping bags, referred to erroneously as ‘recycle bags’ although this is grammatically and factually inaccurate, since they are neither made of recycled material, nor are they recyclable. Non-woven shopping bags are those inexpensive lightweight bags that look and feel like fabric and are usually given out as goodie bags at events or sold at supermarket checkout lanes. They are made of polypropylene and are therefore also plastic despite their resemblance to cotton or fabric. These should be avoided as they are not durable, typically contain lead, break down into plastic fibres easily thus contributing to microplastic pollution, and cannot be repaired, recycled or composted.
Malaysia is one of the 193 countries which signed a UN resolution in December 2017 to eliminate marine plastic pollution. There is no way we can fulfil this pledge if we continue to replace one type of plastic with another type of plastic or with other single-use packaging with a high carbon and water footprint, or increase microplastics in our oceans by increasing the demand for and use of oxo-degradable plastic.
To truly reduce plastic pollution, we need to reduce waste and change our mindset in relation to disposable and single-use items, which may be convenient for us but not convenient for the environment. The solution to the problem of plastic pollution and waste should incorporate the banning of small, lightweight plastic bags, the distribution only of larger, thicker plastic bags for a small fee for rubbish disposal and the subsequent proper collection and disposal of such rubbish in sanitary landfills, the elimination of ‘greenwashing’ alternatives such as non-woven polypropylene bags and oxo-degradable plastic bags, and the implementation of incentives such as rebates, shopping reward points and express checkout counters.
Long-term solutions can subsequently be introduced to include practical initiatives to encourage and increase recycling and composting to reduce household and industrial waste and correspondingly reduce the need for rubbish bags. There must be incentives and laws in place to make it easier for homes and businesses to dispose of waste without the need for rubbish bags, and for food and consumer goods to be sold without the need for plastic wrap and other packaging.
Scientific and technological solutions to reduce waste and replace conventional plastic packaging are being developed every day, and we have a choice between the most cutting-edge solutions such as plant-based, edible packaging, and traditional zero-cost, zero-waste options such as bringing our own baskets, cloth bags and food containers with us to the shops. It is not choices or solutions that we lack, but the political and individual will to do the right and responsible thing.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Letter to the Editor: Death of Rare Birds Exposes Horrors of Exotic Pet Trade


(Photo credits: The Star Online)

The tragic, senseless and deliberate drowning of 300 rare birds by wildlife traffickers when pursued by the authorities (Wed, 17 Jan 2018) evinces the cruel and destructive nature of the exotic pet trade.
The birds were drowned because they were merely merchandise and not sentient living beings to the traffickers, and when pursued, the birds became a liability and possible evidence in the event of arrest.
Birds are especially vulnerable to poaching and trafficking because of their abiding popularity as pets. Birds, especially parrots, are sedated and have their beaks cut or taped up, legs bound and wings clipped or tied by wildlife traffickers. The Animal Law Coalition reports that 60 percent of wild-caught birds do not survive to reach their destinations. Most die of shock, stress, illness and injury during capture, transportation, transit and captivity.
Readers who expressed sorrow at the needless deaths of the birds must realise that such incidents are not uncommon, and Malaysia is not merely a stopover for wildlife traffickers who are non-Malaysian citizens.
Malaysia is known to be a hub for wildlife trafficking and the illegal wildlife trade despite the existence of the Wildlife Conservation Act 2010 and Animal Welfare Act 2015. There are very few regulations in place making it difficult for people to purchase, acquire, or keep exotic animals, especially when proper licenses have been obtained.
Environmental organisations including TRAFFIC and the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) confirm the existence of a flourishing trade in live animals and endangered species in Malaysia, and social media is a virtual wildlife supermarket offering everything from Common Hill Mynas to trapdoor spiders and sun bear cubs.
The international wildlife trade involves a multi-million dollar organised crime network. The Wildlife Conservation Society reports that the wildlife trade, which is valued to be approximately US$8 billion annually, is surpassed in scale only by the illegal trade in drugs and arms. Government agencies are no match for wildlife poachers and traffickers. Corruption, porous borders, and a lack of resources and manpower make it difficult for many developing countries to stop the illegal wildlife trade.
Yet stamping out the wildlife trade cannot be the responsibility of governments and law enforcement agencies alone. It is not them who are driving up the demand for exotic pets, but consumers who treat exotic pets as status symbols, social media users who upload and share posts featuring captive wildlife and exotic pets, and tourists who pay money to have photo opportunities with exotic pets and drugged wildlife.
Many people who defend their ‘right’ to purchase and keep wild birds and other exotic pets hang on to the misguided belief that the animals are safer in their care now that rainforests and other wildlife habitats have been destroyed, or that there is virtually no difference between keeping wildlife and keeping dogs, cats and other domestic animals as companion animals.
However, we must remember that the wildlife trade is a major threat to biodiversity, ecosystems and even human health and safety. Birds, especially parrots, can spread parrot fever and pneumonia, especially through the inhalation of their dry droppings in a cage or aviary. Keeping wild animals indoors confined to small tanks, cages and enclosures, away from members of their own species, is neither educational nor compassionate. Many exotic pets often end up being released, surrendered to zoos, abandoned or unintentionally killed due to ignorance and neglect. Many exotic species advertised as ‘captive bred’ are actually poached from the wild, since DNA testing cannot reveal whether an animal was raised in captivity or in the wild.
If the report of the drowned birds had saddened us, then it must also move us into action. We cannot continue normalising the practice of poaching, abusing, exploiting and confining wildlife. We need to question if our purchases and choices destroy habitats and the ability of rural and indigenous communities to sustain themselves, thus driving them to poach wildlife for a living. We need to refrain from taking photos with wildlife, sharing wildlife selfies on social media, and allowing circuses and badly-kept zoos to profit from exploiting wildlife.
Nature-lovers who enjoy watching and photographing wildlife must take extra care not to disclose the location of endangered species and birds’ nests. We need to advise friends and family against purchasing or acquiring exotic pets, and persuade them to adopt from local animal shelters or to visit and support sanctuaries and rescue organisations instead. We need to avoid shopping at pet stores that sell exotic pets, and should lodge reports on the sales of wildlife to Perhilitan or wildlife conservation groups that can assist in investigating and acting on our reports. Those who intend to report wildlife crime must be vigilant and relay accurate information, such as the species, location, photographic and documentary evidence and contact information, to Perhilitan’s official website or through their Careline at 1300-80-10-10, or to the 24-hour NGO-run Wildlife Crime Hotline at 019 356 4194. 
Birds in their natural habitat are not only beautiful to observe, but have an important ecological role to play. Birds pollinate plants, disperse seeds and keep insect and other disease vector populations down. The exotic pet trade is driving many wild bird species to extinction, and this can have a knock-on effect on other species and result in ecological imbalance.
There has to be a worldwide import ban on the bird trade to stop bird species from being poached and trafficked to extinction, and at the same time, more needs to be done to reduce the domestic demand for keeping wild birds as pets as well. It would do well for us to think of the excruciating yet avoidable deaths of the drowned birds before we purchase birds as pets or upload a wildlife selfie.

Monday, November 13, 2017

Letter to the Editor: Halt Logging In Vicinity of Forest Reserves




It is with grave concern that environmentalists and conscientious citizens read how state and forestry authorities rationalise logging activities in Batu Yon and land surrounding the  Merapoh Forest Reserve in the Kuala Lipis area by claiming that the logging is carried out in land owned by the Agriculture Industrial Development Board (LKPP) and not directly on the forest reserve land.


The Merapoh forest, estimated to be 130 million years old, is home to endangered species which include elephants, tigers, tapirs, sun bears and deer, as well as rare flora such as the rafflesia. Its spectacular limestone caves form a vital part of Malaysia’s natural heritage. All of these natural wonders are now under threat as a result of logging and roadworks in their vicinity.


The fact remains that agricultural land bordering gazetted forest reserves are still critical water catchment areas and wildlife habitats. It is overly simplistic to claim that agricultural, recreational or rural residential areas bordering forest reserves are fair game for logging and development since they do not constitute the forest reserve land proper.


Opening up logging roads into areas surrounding forest reserves has knock-on effects and can and do affect the forest reserve area adversely. Statistical evidence has shown that logging roads everywhere from Russia to Central Africa and Southeast Asia have increased access for poachers and hunters into sensitive wildlife habitats and also increased the incidence of human-wildlife conflict and roadkill.


In fact, timber companies operating in areas such as the Primorsky Krai in Russia where serious decline in wildlife populations has been recorded since the opening up of logging roads are under great pressure to close up logging roads and carry out mitigation measures. Sadly, here in Southeast Asia where up to 48% of all native mammal species are predicted to be extinct by 2100, roads continue to be opened up for logging and mining or for ‘transporting forest products’, despite the irrefutable data that forested land is worth much more intact than when depleted, logged or converted into plantations. The economic benefits of logging are short-lived and can sustain only 1-2 generations at most.  


Not only are the Merapoh Caves a sensitive wildlife habitat, they are also an important ecotourism site. Logging and deforestation in the areas surrounding the Merapoh Caves will have a severe negative impact on the rural communities whose livelihood depend on ecotourism and subsistence farming and fishing in areas that are now polluted, depleted and exposed.


Apart from the threat it poses to wildlife populations, logging and deforestation also affect air quality, climate and water cycle patterns. Healthy forests absorb solar energy and release water vapour, while forest clearing releases stored carbon dioxide, which traps heat and contributes to atmospheric warming. The destruction of watershed areas will result in more flash floods, landslides and drought, thus costing the State and Federal Governments more in disaster management and mitigation than they are able to benefit from issuing permits for logging, mining and agricultural activities.    


The growing number of environmental and citizens’ action groups in Malaysia calling for an end to deforestation and for the protection of the Merapoh Caves and forest reserve attests to the growing awareness of our interconnectedness with our natural environment and the importance of forests for the ecosystem services they provide. It is not merely fear for the loss of income from trekking and ecotourism activities that motivates concerned citizens to speak up. The Merapoh Caves and forest reserve were here long before the existence of humans. We cannot afford to lose any more of it in our age of collapsing ecosystems and anthropogenic disasters.








Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Letter to the Editor: Explore Alternatives to Tree-Felling




As a Petaling Jaya resident, I am dismayed that the Petaling Jaya City Council (MBPJ) has made the decision to cut down over 1,100 trees for the construction of the Damansara-Shah Alam Highway (DASH).


Petaling Jaya residents were previously informed that only 160 trees were identified for felling to make way for the highway construction project. On 10th April 2017, the MBPJ confirmed that 1,100 trees of varying sizes will be felled for the highway project. Concerns are now raised as to the final number of trees already felled and to be felled, the basis for the increase in the number of trees felled, how the earlier evaluation had been made and why the earlier number could not be adhered to, and who stands to benefit from the felling of the trees.


Despite the fact that the highway developer Prolintas is required to replant two trees for every tree felled, it is submitted that these tree-planting efforts have only limited potential to reduce carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere, compared to if mature trees were left intact and protected against disease and felling. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) averred in a special report in 2000 that tree-planting initiatives could sequester only around 1.1 to 1.6 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2) a year. Global greenhouse gas emissions, on the other hand, were equivalent to 50 gigatonnes of CO2 in 2004. Although replanting and tree-planting initiatives are better than no climate change mitigation efforts at all, the carbon sequestered through replanting is almost negligible.


Further, as concerned citizens, we would like to know where the developer and MBPJ propose to replant these 2,200 trees, the variety and species of trees to be planted, whether the tree-planting sites chosen will be afforded protection against land-clearing and future development projects, and what level of care these new trees are expected to receive to ensure their survival. Merely putting saplings into soil does not constitute reforestation and climate change mitigation efforts. A tree will only begin to be effective in absorbing CO2 in its 10th year. A 25-year-old tree will be able to absorb approximately 0.0011 tonnes of CO2 over a year. Over 25 years, we would need 36 trees to offset just one tonne of CO2. Disease, deforestation and reclamation of land for development will have an impact on whether a tree survives for 50 years and beyond.


The DASH project was proposed as a solution to traffic congestion in the Damansara area. However, any good it proposes to effect by reducing traffic volume and travel distance is invalidated by the destruction and damage to the environment caused in its construction. Urban trees play a vital role in temperature regulation, floodwater and stormwater absorption and pollution reduction, among others. Urban tree canopies provide shade, oxygen, habitats for birds and wildlife and recreational spaces for people. Felling mature trees and then pledging to ‘replace’ them is not the right approach. One cannot simply ‘replace’ a mature tree that has been providing oxygen and other ecological services. In addition, the felling of trees goes against the National Landscape Policy and defeats the purpose of tree-planting and urban renewal campaigns.


The developer and MBPJ should look into the possibility of realigning the highway construction plans to minimise damage to the environment and reduce the number of trees to be felled, and of relocating and transplanting the smaller and younger trees. It is clear that despite the wishes of the public and the concerns of environmental organisations, the developer and Selangor State Government fully intend to press ahead with the construction of the DASH Highway. It is thus incumbent upon the developer and State Government to take all measures necessary to protect, preserve and retain the existing trees and to reduce the environmental impact of the DASH Highway project.












Eco Kids Column, Sept 2017: Alternatives to Disposable Cutlery and Plastic Straws

We all know that disposable items, be it diapers, party ware, straws, paper napkins and food takeout containers, are not good for the environment. Far too much energy and resources go into the manufacturing of these single-use products. Most of these products cannot be recycled or composted. Paper plates, plastic bags, plastic food containers, straws and plastic cutlery, even if they bear the recyclable logo (i.e. the triangular Mobius loop), are not accepted for recycling once they are contaminated by food, grease and water.
Further, the cost of recycling these items can be much higher than manufacturing new ones from scratch, since it would include the cost of collecting, sorting, washing and processing the used materials, which the manufacturer would not have to do when producing these items from petroleum and other raw materials. As such, most manufacturers would opt not to accept used plastics for recycling. Even if disposables could be recycled or composted, most of its environmental impact occurs ‘upstream’, that is, in manufacturing and transportation, before these products are even used.
Once these products are used and thrown away, they end up filling up landfills and making their way into streams, rivers and oceans. Straws and plastic cutlery have been found in the noses, throats and stomachs of turtles, whales and other marine animals. Volunteers participating in beach clean-ups can confirm that a lot of the rubbish collected from beaches consist of plastic cutlery and plastic straws.
The reason why plastic cutlery and straws are so widely used are as follows:
1.      It is cheaper than permanent washable metal cutlery and straws or compostable cutlery and straws made from plants.
2.      It is convenient and businesses do not have to worry about collecting used cutlery and straws for washing.
However, it is irresponsible and unkind to keep doing something that we know is harmful to the environment and animals just because it is cheap and convenient.
Making toys, lampshades, coasters and placemats from used plastic straws and cutlery is NOT a solution since it does not reduce the demand for, or the production of, the said products. Further, once the plastic turns brittle, you would have to throw the items away, and they would still end up in landfills and in our soil and water. It is better not to accept and use disposable plastic cutlery and straws in the first place.
Here are some of the alternatives to disposable cutlery and plastic straws:
1.      Avoid buying plastic straws or cutlery to use at home or for parties. If you don’t keep them in the house, nobody will be tempted to use them. People often go for the most convenient option out of laziness, so don’t create that option in the first place.
2.      When you are ordering takeout or food delivery, specify “NO CUTLERY OR STRAW, PLEASE.” No restaurant or fast food outlet would turn down your request since it would save them money.
3.      Get in the habit of drinking without a straw. You can safely drink from most cups, glasses, mugs, bottles and cans. Give the tops of canned drinks a quick rinse with water if you have concerns about their cleanliness. There is no guarantee that plastic straws are any cleaner than the cups or cans you are drinking out of. Most plastic straws are handled by human hands in restaurants or exposed to dust and dirt after all.
4.      Paper straws may seem like a compostable and more environmentally-friendly option, but they often require more water, energy and resources to manufacture. Since paper straws are disposable and are produced from wood pulp and therefore require the cutting down of trees, they are still a less-than-ideal alternative to plastic straws.
5.      Bioplastics, or plastics made from plants, algae or microorganisms, may sound like a good alternative to conventional petroleum-based disposable plastic products. The two most common bioplastics used for food containers and disposable tableware are PLA and PHA, which are plastics made from corn. The advantages of bioplastics is that they are made from plants, a renewable resource. They use less energy and emit less carbon dioxide than conventional plastics. They also do not have the same known health risks as petroleum-based plastics. However, there are disadvantages to producing and using bioplastics. Bioplastics can reduce food supply when valuable farming land is used to produce corn and other crops for bioplastics, instead of for growing food crops for humans and animals. Fossil fuel-based fertilisers and pesticides are often used in growing crops for bioplastics. Because bioplastics look similar to conventional plastics, they often end up in recycling bins, where they contaminate conventional plastics in the recycling plants. If bioplastics break down in the landfill, they release methane, a greenhouse gas. Therefore, it is better to avoid switching from conventional disposable plastic products to bioplastics, except when you have no other option available and have to choose between the two.
6.      Invest in a stainless steel, glass or bamboo straw and a set of steel cutlery or a Spork, and bring it with you whenever you go out so that you will not have to accept disposable plastic cutlery or straws. Remember to inform the service staff at the point of ordering your food that you do not want a straw or disposable cutlery. Do not inform them only after your food or drink has arrived.
7.      You may wish to bring an extra set of steel cutlery to lend to a friend when you go out to eat, especially when you eat at fast food outlets, food courts or food truck stops. Take a bag or container with you to bring the used cutlery home for washing if there is no soap and water where you are going.
8.      If you are travelling to a place where hygiene and clean water supply is an issue, bring some compostable bamboo or plant-based cutlery and straws with you and use these instead. You may also wish to bring biodegradable plates and cups with you when buying food and beverages from roadside stalls to avoid having to accept plastic bags, Styrofoam food containers or less-than-clean plates and cutlery.
9.      If your neighbourhood food court or school canteen is using disposable cutlery, write to the food court or canteen operator to persuade them to switch to washable, reusable and durable cutlery. Tell them how much money they will save in the long run from replacing disposables with reusables.
10.  Write to your favourite restaurants and cafes or leave a message on their Facebook pages requesting them to replace disposable plastic straws with reusable steel straws, bamboo straws or natural and compostable alternatives such as reeds, vegan candy tubes such as Twizzlers with the ends snipped off (as recommended by eco-friendly lifestyle guru Danny Seo) and papaya leaf stems (as practiced by Down-To-Earth restaurant in Ubud, Bali).
It may take you a while to adjust to not using a straw or disposable cutlery, and having to remember to carry your reusable straws and cutlery with you, but your efforts will go a long way towards preventing wildlife deaths and plastic pollution.
(Image from the Tak Nak Straw Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/TakNakStraw/)