No plastic bags … won’t die-lah!

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Are we ready to take on the ‘no plastic bags’ challenge which will spur initiative and creativity to a higher level to save ourselves and our planet, wonders Angeline Loh.

Paper bag, envelop file and paper toy and sampan made from junk mail

The Penang Government’s imminent plastic bag ban will seem a tragedy to some but not to all. Many might bemoan missing the ‘convenience’ of having free plastic bags supplied with their shopping in the hypermarkets, supermarkets and various other retail outlets including hawkers and vendors. The grumbling actually arises from the system change i.e. what people are used to and when they have to adopt a different way of doing things.

When shopping, I’ve witnessed Penangites complaining and scolding supermarket cashiers for charging them 20 sen for a plastic bag. Well, after spending more than RM50 on all that shopping, is 20 sen going to break the bank, just because you forgot to bring your own bag? Is 20 sen too much to pay for a cleaner and healthier environment for you, your children and their children?

On the other hand, while one convenience is withdrawn, the retailers should supply another convenience that might replace it. To their credit, retailers have come up with large liquid-proof and other reusable shopping bags that may endure the rigours of heavy shopping usage for a limited time.

This excludes the biodegradable plastic bag, as such bags seem to be a nuisance rather than a good durable alternative. These ‘bio-degrade’ in storage resulting in a heap of brittle crumbs that are difficult to clear out of a container or durable bag in which they had been stored. So, ‘biodegradable’ doesn’t work so well.

Perhaps, retailers should explore the idea of recycling ‘old newspapers’ by creatively turning them into paper bags and giving these free to customers to carry particular groceries. This holds nostalgia for the days when plastic bags were non-existent. Our ancestors were geniuses! In a way, it’s turning the clock back nearly a hundred years? It seems so much in keeping with Penang being a world heritage site, we’ll even have heritage packaging for our shopping. But it must be from recycled paper, otherwise we endanger the planet further by cutting down good trees to make paper. Tree cutting is a real ‘No No’!

In a backlash agains the ban, plastic bag manufacturers were reportedly planning to distribute 30,000 bags to the public. It is no surprise that plastic bag manufacturers are reacting to the the possible impending loss of market; but seriously, plastic bags are probably not the only item they produce.

They will have to get more creative and eco-friendly in their field of work and come up with something more environmentally acceptable than the ubiquitous plastic bag, which will forever litter the oceans of the world – unless, they can reassure humankind that these pollutant plastic bags can be recycled into something useful that will not destroy or threaten the global environment. More must go into R&D, because you can’t eat cold gold (or plastic bags) when you’re starving!

Creativity born of scarcity

Do you know what people did during the difficult days of World War Two? How did people survive when food was scarce and shop shelves were empty? Having money could only sustain you if you could afford ‘black market’ prices that were way above most middle-class consumers’ heads as well as risk arrest for those illegal purchases as well.

Interestingly, people had to become creative to survive. Forgive me, if this sparks some pretty hard and painful memories for those readers who lived through the Second World War and the Japanese Occupation. Yet, this is the stuff from which heroes are made.

Twentieth century humankind reverted to hunter-gatherer-farmer lifestyles just to get by day to day. There was tapioca ( as my mother told me) and other root vegetables to be dug up when found in the wild or home-grown. These were boiled, baked, fried, grilled, roasted or whatever else and eaten as an alternative to rice, which was in very short supply. Eggs became a luxury. Sugar and other condiments were also luxuries as merchant shipping and supply ships were bombed or blockaded by the opposing forces.

Those in countries like Britain were reduced to food rationing whiles those on the European mainland were worse off, having been devastated by the conflict. As a result, a new cuisine was invented and people were apparently less likely to suffer from high cholesterol and cardiovascular diseases after the war since they could not over eat; instead, they had a more balanced diet eating very basic foods without unhealthy additives. They also had more exercise because public transport systems were completely at a standstill. (See Cookit! website) My grandmother, who was born in Malaya in the earlier part of the 20th century died in her 90s; she had survived the war and the Japanese Occupation with her family intact, despite that hard life.

The point in saying this is that, when we lack something, we take for granted, like plastic bags, it is not a big tragedy but an opportunity to move forward in our thinking and physically better ourselves. Remember, those large wax paper umbrellas used in torrential rain showers about fifty years ago, long before plastic foldable ones came out? Well, they cost a fortune now because they’ve become antiques. Replicas definitely don’t match their quality in durability and craftsmanship, as it was then.

So, are we ready to take on the ‘no plastic bags’ challenge which would spur initiative and creativity to a higher level and save ourselves and our planet? Or will we cling to our past ‘luxuries’ which will in time sink us into extinction with climate change and rising sea levels? Some smart people may be right in thinking that there is no tomorrow… not for us or our children’s children, anyway, if we don’t ‘get real’, really soon.

Angeline Loh is an Aliran exco member

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Angeline Loh
Angeline Loh, a former long-serving Aliran executive committee member, writes regularly for Aliran. WIth a background in international human rights law, she champions the rights of those who are often forgotten or marginalised in society.

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