TAPIOCA saved millions from starvation during the Japanese Occupation in 1942. But now, there are plans to make disposable bags from the tuber.
In an effort to go green, the Federal Territories Ministry has decided that all businesses in Kuala Lumpur must use disposable bags made from plant-based materials such as tapioca and corn starting Sept 1.
This bold move is expected to increase the price of bags by between 100% and 300%.
Plastic industry players doubt businesses in the capital city will replace the regular petroleum-based plastic bags with those made solely from plants anytime soon.
Besides the high cost, they foresee the difficulty in getting the raw materials and poor durability of such bags will drive businesses to continue using regular petroleum-based plastic bags, which are easy to source, cheap and highly durable.
They said the RM2,000 compound for non-compliance to be imposed by Kuala Lumpur City Hall (DBKL) would not be enough to force the change and business operators will find loopholes in the enforcement method to avoid being caught.
Hybrid Green Manufacturing Sdn Bhd founder and chief executive officer Rajesh Madatheri said there were too many factors that would drive businesses away from plant-based disposable bags.
“Firstly, the plastic industry is very competitive that even the slightest increase in cost would cause factories to shut down for good. Operational cost of making biomaterial bags is high.
“When the bag-making machine is turned on, it will operate round the clock because every time it is switched off and on again, it consumes a lot of energy and causes a lot of waste.
“Having different requests for bags will force manufacturers to stop and start the machines regularly, increasing their operational costs.
“Biomaterial bags also need to be thicker to withstand pressure as the bond that holds them together is loose. Regular plastics can be as thin as eight microns but biomaterial bags need to be at least 15 microns to be useable.
“This means more raw materials are needed to make these bags, which is a waste of resources.
“All the added costs will be passed on to the consumer who will need to pay five times more than what they usually do,” he estimated.
Despite all the effort, the bags may not even reach the consumers in a good form.
Rajesh said 100% biomaterial bags would start to biodegrade within six months or even sooner, depending on how they are stored.
“The speed of biodegradation depends on the heat, moisture and organisms present.
“The weather in Malaysia is perfect for the organisms to thrive if the bags are not stored well.
“So it is highly likely that the end user will be getting a lump of biomaterial if the bags take more than six months to get from the manufacturing point to the end user.
“The bags are also delicate and cannot withstand much pressure, resulting in the need to use more bags to secure the load,” he explained.
More than 200 traders operating at Raja Bot Market in Chow Kit, who were picked for a pilot project to introduce biodegradable packaging last year, rejected the biomaterial bags because of its poor durability that forced them to use more bags.
Rajesh also pointed out that biomaterial bags were not strong enough to be garbage bags.
Food to bags
A plastic manufacturer, who wished to be known only as Lee, criticised the use of food to make bags.
“Millions of people in the world are starving and we are planning to use food to make disposable bags?
“We are told that Malaysia produces only 60 tonnes of tapioca annually and this is not enough to even supply to one plastic bag manufacturing company, let alone the whole of Kuala Lumpur.
“Are we going to import tapioca and corn to make such bags? Or are we going to import the plant-based bags? How will this affect our economy?
“Using food sources to make bags for disposal is wrong and it does not make economic sense,” he reiterated.
Another plastic manufacturer Kevin Ngooi, who runs Soen Sheng Plastic Industries, said the policy would not last.
“Once implementation starts, the authorities will realise the loopholes. I give it two months at most before businesses go back to the old ways,” he said.
Tackle the real problem
Rajesh said plastic bag manufacturing was big business and making such a drastic change in a short span of time would not work.
“While everyone jumps on the bandwagon to be green, any new policy introduced needs to be workable to be accepted.
“There is no point in implementing a policy that is impractical for people to follow.
“Businesses will suffer because they have to be equipped with different sets of plastic bags for different states, which is troublesome,” he noted.
He acknowledges that littering of plastic bags made it an eyesore and since the current plastic bags did not degrade easily and quickly, accumulation was the real problem.
“To solve plastic accumulation, many cities and countries have tried to use biomaterial bags but failed.
“Globally, the emphasis now is to reduce, reuse, recycle and refuse plastic bags when possible,” he added.
Rajesh said there were cheaper petroleum-based biodegradable plastic bags made from chemical additives or other types of biomaterial, with shelf life of between two and 10 years but these did not meet the ministry’s requirement.
“Sirim approved these plastics with an eco-label together with the biomaterial bags but the Federal Territories Ministry did not include this variant in its implementation.
“Those plastics would have been a workable solution because of their similar characteristics and cost,” he reasoned.
Universiti Malaya’s Prof Dr P. Agamuthu, who is also an Academy of Sciences Malaysia fellow, said biomaterial bags were the most environmentally friendly option but not necessarily the most practical solution.
“The regular petroleum-based plastics are inert but their accumulation is a big problem, especially in our landfills.
“Plastics make up between 15% and 24% of our landfills, and the accumulated layers are preventing the release of methane upwards for harvesting.
“So, we can only harvest half of the theoretical methane production to convert to energy from about 60% to 65% organic wastes such as food and paper that go to the landfills.
“The degradable petroleum-based plastics, with chemical additives or biomaterial, leave a residue that may be washed into the waterway, consumed by aquatic animals and eventually end up on our plate.
“This is a serious health threat too,” Prof Agamuthu explained.
He agreed that plant-based biomaterial was the most ideal option but it raised the ethical issue of using food to make plastics.
“So there are pros and cons to all types of bags and the best solution is to reduce the use of plastics altogether. It is better for the environment.
“The Government should push for the use of brown paper bags where possible and cultivate the culture among consumers to bring their own bags for shopping,” he added.