The month of July is marked as Plastic Free July. It is a global movement where worldwide, people take part in refusing single-use plastics.
As the amount of plastic consumption is set to double by 2040, research and development on single-use alternatives have been increasing.
Plastic industries particularly have introduced false solutions calling them “eco-friendly” single-use alternatives that are plant-based and are recyclable or compostable. According to Upstream’s latest report on the reuse economy, these plant-based alternatives are not as environmentally friendly as thought to be. Many experts have emphasised that we cannot recycle and compost away the problems created by single-use items. The report stressed on how banning plastics would not equate to an environmental win if single-use options are still made available.
Recycling and composting have been a method used by fast-moving consumer goods companies (FMCGs) and the plastic industry to sell and promote single-use items to consumers. However, globally the volume of wastes that have been recycled and composted are dismal. Waste is predominantly landfilled, incinerated, or dumped indiscriminately.
Landfilling and incinerating plastics are detrimental to the environment and human health due to the chemistry of plastics and its additives. Landfilling emits greenhouse gases and produces leachate which leaks into soils and our waters, ultimately entering our food systems. Additionally, plastics degrade into microplastics which again could end up in our bodies.
Similarly, incineration emits toxic and potent gases into the atmosphere and is harmful to surrounding communities who are often marginalised and low-income communities. Furthermore, most often plastics such as HPDE and PET get recycled locally and the rest low-value plastics are landfilled or exported, creating a huge problem to the recipient countries and communities. For instance, in 2018, Malaysia became the world’s top destination for plastic waste exports, causing environmental pollution and public health problems. Compostable single-use alternatives too do not solve the crisis as most of them do not get composted. Most composting facilities do not accept any type of compostable plastics due to concerns of contamination, slow decomposition rates and, no nutrition value. Moreover, compostable plastics require specific environmental conditions to decompose. Often, non-compostable plastics that look compostable are also sent to facilities resulting in contamination.
Plant-based disposables are not eco-friendly either. The production consumes fossil fuels via agricultural activity like the use of fertilisers, pesticides, agriculture machinery, etc. Additionally, it consumes a lot of land and water. Ultimately, mass manufacturing of these products may lead to acid rains, eutrophication, deterioration of soil and water quality, etc. Likewise, other single-use alternatives result in similar environmental catastrophes. How do we solve this? Through reuse and refill economy!
Reuse and refill economy is the way to go
Based on the study conducted and Life Cycle Assessments (LCAs) reviewed by UPSTREAM in their recent report, businesses transitioning to reuse economy could avoid 841 million disposable food packaging items, equivalent to 7.5 million tons of material diverted annually. In the LCAs reviewed, reusables are said to be more environmentally friendly and break even with disposables when reused a certain number of times throughout their lifecycle. The greater number of times a reusable item is used, the more disposables are diverted. This however varies with material type.
Reusables with the least environmental footprint is glass followed by ceramic and stainless steel. Furthermore, reusables are comparably safer than disposables whereby they do not contain any chemical additives except for reusable plastics (polycarbonate plastics) made with bisphenols. These additives are known endocrine disruptors, carcinogenic, neurogenic and can cause human disease and disabilities even at low levels of exposure.
A lot of businesses expressed concerns over the additional costs for labour and additional dishwashing. However, businesses that permanently switched to reusables stated that the costs of additional labour and dishwashing are negligible and, in most cases, non-existent. According to UPSTREAM, cost of single-use alternatives spent in the US by restaurants costs $21.9 billion in 2019 and replacing 20% of these items offers an opportunity worth nearly $10 billion.
As evident from the UPSTREAM report, reusables are environmentally, socially, and economically better. Many restaurants and entrepreneurs have incorporated and transitioned into reuse and refill systems in their businesses. There are various ways of implementing this system into businesses. For instance, through reusable to-go cup services and incentives, reusable take-out container services, reuse at events and vending and bulk systems.
The Philippines model
In the commencement of Plastic Free July, Unwrapped PH, a GAIA Asia Pacific led initiative, organised a webinar titled “Food Safety and Packaging: Dare to Go Bare!”. During the webinar, plastic health and safety issues were discussed along with zero waste initiatives in the Philippines. A notable zero waste initiative by one of the speakers, the executive director of Philippine Reef and Rainforest Conservation Foundation Inc. (PRRCF), was an eye-opener whereby the organisation had supported and funded “sari-sari” or neighbourhood stores to go zero waste using refillable and reuse schemes.
Sari-sari stores are small neighbourhood shops much like our “kedai runcit” in Malaysia, where locals go to purchase their daily necessities. Unfortunately, the products sold in these stores are packaged in sachets contributing to the plastic pollution crisis. Inspired to help tackle plastic pollution and empower these shops, PRRCF launched their first zero-waste store in Bacolod City known as “Wala Usik Tiangge + Kapehan”. Wala Usik is a Hiligaynon phrase that means “no wastage”. They incorporated cultural and ecological roots of Hiligaynon, where nothing goes to waste and to ensure that materials are reused.
With help from experts and the local community, they succeeded in transforming the “sachet sources” into community micro refilleries selling daily necessities. Customers go there with their own containers or use store-owned containers which are later returned. In 2019, PRRCF organised a Wala Usik Sari-Sari Store Design Workshop to engage other store owners and key stakeholders in redesigning and rethinking their businesses. Today, 8 sari-sari stores have utilised this system located in Bacolod, Sipalay and Bayawan and the municipalities of Cauayan, Hinoba-an, Sta Catalina, Basay, and Siaton.
The Malaysian model
Fret not! There are quite a number of zero waste stores that have been set up in Malaysia as well, both online and offline. These zero waste stores offer a variety of common goods ranging from food, household detergents and skin-care products using bulk and refillable system. All items sold in these zero-waste stores are supplied from local brands. The store owners also embark on educating and encouraging society to live a plastic-free life and move towards zero waste.
There are also stores offering a variety of zero waste products like bamboo toothbrushes, handmade hand and body bar soaps,shampoos, palette toothpastes, etc. You can also find the stores online! Don’t worry about packaging as they reuse old boxes and newspaper to pack items. The boxes and newspaper can later be composted. What makes these stores unique is their online refill system and e-waste/ oil collection.
If you are lazy to refill detergents from a shop, some provide pick-up services. You can send a message to them and they will come to your house and refill your empty bottles. Similarly, if you have e-waste and used oil at your house, you could contact them, and they will be at your doorstep for collection! If you are looking for a store or recycling facility nearby your area, head onto this map of zero waste resources in Malaysia created by Zero Waste Malaysia. This is a perfect starting point for businesses and individuals to discover zero waste and start their waste-free journeys.
If you find the products sold in zero-waste stores too costly, you can opt by bringing your own bags or containers to buy food items that are sold in bulk from a sundry shop. Start small by searching products with less packaging, contribute to less waste generation and purchase in bulk or by refilling.
Since small community stores can transition into zero waste stores, big businesses should be able to convert to these simple systems and improve their environmental and social performances.
As stated in Break Free From Plastic’s latest report on false solutions, top FMCGs polluting the environment with their plastics should be held accountable and pushed to finance in real solutions. It is important to transition into reuse, refill, and packaging-free economy and to put an end on the consumption and production of single-use items.
Let’s start this journey now.
 Velis, C., & Cook, E. (2020 , July 24). How Earth’s Plastic Pollution Problem Could Look by 2040 . Retrieved from The Conversation : https://theconversation.com/how-earths-plastic-pollution-problem-could-look-by-2040-143220
 Tranco, B. (n.d.). WALA USIK: Zero Waste Sari-Sari Stores . Retrieved from GAIA : https://www.no-burn.org/business-unusual-wala-usik/
Break Free From Plastic . (2021). Missing The Mark, Unveiling corporate false solutions to the plastic pollution crisis. https://www.breakfreefromplastic.org/missing-the-mark-unveiling-corporate-false-solutions-to-the-plastic-crisis/