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We borrowed the future from our children
Published on: Sunday, January 01, 2017

By Datuk Seri Madius Tangau
Starting today, Kuala Lumpur City Hall would ban the use of non-biodegradable plastic bags and polystyrene in all three Federal Territories of Kuala Lumpur, Putrajaya and Labuan.

To enforce the ban, businesses that fail to comply would be compounded, have their license revoked, deposit forfeited, goods confiscated and even face jail term.

The decision to ban polystyrene by the Federal Territories Ministry was due to the danger it poses to health and the costly waste management.

For societal well being, all plastics in the market should be biodegradable which is now possible with the advancement of technology. The Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation (MOSTI) has been playing its part in producing biodegradable plastics.

As highlighted in the Mega Science 3.0 study, Malaysia’s plastics and composites industry is a major contributor to the national GDP. This sector would generate RM 190 billion in revenue for the country and RM 100 billion in export by 2050.

The global outlook would be USD 3 trillion with Asia dominating 50 per cent of the market share.

According to a report, The New Plastics Economy, by the World Economic Forum, at least 8 million tonnes of plastics leak into the ocean every year. If no action is taken, this translates to dumping the contents of four garbage trucks into the ocean per minute by 2050.

The emission of greenhouse gases by the plastics industry globally would also surge to account for 15 per cent of the global annual carbon budget by 2050, up from 1 per cent today. Although biodegradable plastics could not measure up to the ambition of eliminating all complications arising from plastics disposal, it is still considered a better alternative to their non-degradable counterparts.

There are two innovative Malaysian success stories worth telling – in fact, I briefly mentioned them in a previous column.

“Old newspaper! Surat khabar lama!”

This was how Mr. Seah Kian Hoe spent his childhood – tagging along his father in a small truck collecting recyclables in the small town of Kampar, Perak.

Upon returning from an MBA program in the U.S. on a Fulbright scholarship, undeterred by the unglamorous image associated with the recycling industry, he established a plastics recycling business in 2002.

Seah is the current Managing Director of Heng Hiap Industries Sdn Bhd, concentrating on integrating the fragmented supply chain and adding value to plastics.

The Johor-based company converts plastic waste into customised resins with improved and superior properties.

“Smart Plastics” as they named it, could be anti-bacterial, have higher electrical conductivity or faster cycle times.

Importantly, these plastics are biodegradable. A protein component in the Smart Plastic molecule enables the plastic to break down when it comes in contact with soil or high bacterial count. It is also more durable than the commonly used starch based biodegradable plastic bags.

The company received the Commercialisation of Research & Development Fund (CRDF) from the Malaysian Development Technology Corporation (MTDC) to commercialise this technology.

CRDF aims to fund the commercialisation activities of locally developed technologies by Malaysian owned companies.

The high-performance resins would be exported to international markets such as the USA, Europe, Singapore, Japan and Australia.

In 2013, Heng Hiap received another CRDF funding when they integrated their plastics recycling plant with recycled rainwater and powered the factory with diesel made from plastic scraps, leaving minimal carbon footprint.

The factory produces 1,080 liters of biodiesel every month, the energy enough to power the factory.

Two years ago, they received a Gold certification of Green Building Index under the Industrial Building category, the first and only in the country. Imagine producing 1,500 tonnes of plastic resins without utility bills! Currently they are looking into producing new coal and oil from plastic scraps.

As of last April, Heng Hiap recorded an annual turnover of RM 78 million and is selling 90 per cent of its products to 24 countries. This is a classic example of waste to wealth!

Another technology MOSTI has funded through MTDC is the oxo-biodegradable polymer additive technology from China.

In 2007 Dragonpak Industries, also based in Johor, acquired this technology to complement their own, through the Technology Acquisition Fund (TAF).

TAF aims to facilitate eligible Malaysian companies in the acquisition of foreign technologies to be immediately applied in the company’s manufacturing activity, sharing the cost and risk of technological development stages.

Dragonpak collaborated with Petronas in research and development, resulting in the “ecoadd” product that has since been patented in over 170 countries in its formulation and process.

The more common starch-based biodegradable plastics emit harmless carbon dioxide in a landfill, but when it is buried deep down, in the absence of air, it releases methane, a powerful greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming.

In contrast, oxo-biodegradable polymer is made from by-products of crude oil refinery. It does not degrade deep in landfills and thus does not release methane gas.

Some may argue that using paper bags is a straightforward solution to plastic bags as it is from a renewable source but we need to look at the entire picture. The process of making paper bags causes more pollution, uses more energy and the end product is less durable. They also require more logistical arrangements as they weigh much more than plastic bags.

A home brand named Greenmate® was launched in 2005, with the products being distributed throughout Malaysia by Petronas Mesra outlets, Mydin and other various distributors. The Penang Town Council also made major purchases.

The town council of Cairo, Egypt, recognised this product as “green” and encouraged its usage in the city since 2012.

The Ministry of Environment of Maldives and Ministry of SME of Congo also certified this company’s garbage bags as an environmental-friendly product.

Another “green” acknowledgement came from the NATO/UN army in the same year, when Dragonpak successfully obtained the tender to supply environmental friendly packaging material to them. Similarly importers from France, Italy, UK and Indonesia recognised it as green product and has been importing them since 2011.

The sales of oxo-biodegradable plastic bags made by Dragonpak from local retail centers amount to about RM 200,000 per month, while the sales made overseas are recorded to be about RM 35 million per annum.

In total Dragonpak has a turnover of about RM 90 million per annum, of which 30 per cent is contributed by oxo-biodegradable plastic bags, and with a growth rate of 5 to 10 per cent! Now that the awareness of biodegradable products has increased, I hope that Malaysians would embrace these locally developed green products.

Yet the topic about plastics is very vast, complex, and definitely is not justifiable in a single discussion here.

Although the compulsory use of biodegradable products is yet to be implemented in Sabah, we should have the foresight that a behavioral change towards our environment starting from today is necessary.

Globally we lose 95 per cent of plastic packaging material value, or USD 80 to 120 billion annually to the economy.

We need to stay informed and be educated about waste separation and recycling, and next, take solid actions.

I quote influential environmental activist Wendell Berry, “We do not inherit the earth from our ancestors; we borrow it from our children.” In other words we owe our generations to come a good quality of life. MOSTI would continue to forecast future challenges and trends, more importantly, solving problems using its science, technology and innovation capabilities.

On another note, our unity is a priceless gift from the founding fathers of our beloved nation.

We are very fortunate that they laid a solid foundation based on the principles of ethnic solidarity, mutual understanding and working together towards a progressive nation.

We have weathered many storms in the last five decades only because we are united.

We need to safeguard our precious unity at all cost, for national development and our children’s future.

Therefore in this New Year, I look forward to seeing Malaysians being a more responsive community, beginning by taking actions in preserving what we inherited from our forefathers.

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