The demand for non-renewable resources continues to increase at a significant rate. The developed world has adopted a linear, consumption-oriented way of life. The amount of wastes generated from the mining of raw materials, manufacturing, selling, and ultimately disposing of products puts an incomprehensible stress on our environment. Fortunately, we are beginning to acknowledge that our norms are by no chance sustainable.
Most Malaysians are willing to commit themselves to environmentally friendly practices, especially when such practices do not compromise their convenience or comfort. In fact, green products are well-received in Malaysia, even more so than in other countries. Although green products represent a great way of reducing energy and water consumption, there is much more to be done to reduce our impact on the environment. In any case, being green saves businesses and consumers’ money.
Product take-back and recycling programs are familiar to manufacturers and service providers operating in many countries. However, local stakeholders (especially consumers) have not been as committed to the actual practice of take-back as they are to the idea of it. As such, perhaps businesses need to drive the change where the concept of extended producer responsibility incentivises businesses to reduce the pressure of waste. Further, most things that we dispose of can be recycled and repurposed. As such, we desperately need producers to pre-empt and manage products that have arrived at the end-of-use phase of their lifecycles. There are a lot of easy steps that businesses can implement to achieve one of the Sustainable Development Goals while earning a green reputation and even driving down costs.
Although there are many discussions to be had on this topic, this article intends to highlight the plight of packaging-related wastes, specifically plastics that have lost their functionality as soon as the content it was designed to protect and preserve is used up. The very qualities of plastics, being lightweight, durable and versatile at a reasonable price, have been a major source of plastic pollution. Let us face it, plastics are here to stay and we need to get better at managing plastic consumption before it overwhelms us, especially our marine environment.
There will be a day when intelligent plastics, those that can be easily recycled or reused, become available. While we look forward to that day, there are also many things that we can do now. We believe that a well-designed “take back for reuse or recycling program” may significantly reduce plastic waste. We should emulate the deposit return schemes (DRS) for plastic bottles, an initiative that is already shown to be successful in countries such Germany, Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Australia. The DRS is an industry-driven scheme that refunds a modest plastic surcharge upon the return of empties. The idea is fairly straightforward and the beverage industry may set up refund points or, better still, install reverse vending recycling machines at high-traffic locations.
Now, holding the idea of vending machines in mind, why not improvise it further to reduce other types of waste? Indeed, the possibilities are endless and this is just one of many problems to be solved. Other types of packaging become litter as soon as the content of the products is consumed. If the product lifecycle of packaging is designed to protect the products from contamination and damage, what are the chances that the useful life of packaging outlives the shelf lives of the content within? The chances are high, making the case for more take-back schemes even stronger.
By reflecting on the frequency of discarding containers that once stored domestic cleaning chemicals (e.g. personal cleaning products, laundry detergent, dishwashing liquid and household cleaning products), only then can we truly visualise the nightmare of our local municipal councils in landfilling plastic waste. Again, we pose a new question: if those containers can be used repeatedly, why not welcome the setup of refill points for liquid detergents where customers can help themselves with automatic dispensers? This concept is a cross idea between the DRS scheme and self-service fresh water vending machine. The chemical industry may refund a surcharge or, better still, pass on some of the savings from reduced packaging and manufacturing costs to consumers who are willing to take the extra mile to support this sustainable activity. Consumers will love it. And, it would get us all closer to achieving the 12th Sustainable Development Goal: Responsible Consumption and Production.
We need action on the part of both businesses and consumers to make such common-sense ideas, well, common.
Dr Jolyne Khor Kuan Siew
Sunway University Business School
Originally published in The Edge, November 2017