Consumption, waste generation and recycling practices in Miri amid COVID-19 and the future
By Smart World Sustainability (SWS) Curtin Malaysia
Amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, there has seen an impulsive change in consumer behaviour, especially when it comes to food, health and hygiene products. The increase of consumption in these products was due in part to panic buying prior to the commencement of the Movement Control Order (MCO) in Malaysia on 18 of March 2020, but it has been an ongoing trend since then.
Purchases of food through food delivery services like GrabFood, Food Panda, McDonalds, Big Delivery and Mimo have been on an upward trajectory and this is likely to continue for as long as the pandemic is still widespread and movement restrictions continue to be imposed by the government. When people have become more homebound, especially those working from home, they will naturally use these food delivery platforms where the food is often packaged and delivered in single-use plastic.
Online shopping is also becoming more popular as physical access to retail outlets becomes more restrictive and online shopping offers a more convenient, safer alternative. Platforms like Lazada and Shopee experienced record traffic in goods in 2020, with sales and purchases doubling from the pre-pandemic period, according to The Malaysian Reserve’s article ‘The boom of e-commerce in Covid-19’.
Similarly, the goods shipped by merchants on these online shopping platforms are characterised by heavy packaging of different types of single-use plastic. Most of these plastic materials end up as waste in landfills if proper waste segregation and recycling practices are not carried out.
Amid the fear gripping the general public with the overwhelming spread of COVID-19, the vast majority of people seem to have become less conscious about environmental conservation and are developing a couldn’t care less attitude toward responsible purchasing, consumption and waste disposal. This can be observed through the large amounts of used hygienic products and discarded plastic spotted around the Miri City.
In Miri, almost all the municipal solid waste generated from March to June 2020 consisted of household waste as the majority of the people were under lockdown. This change was very evident according to an article in The Borneo Post titled ‘Spike in household waste during MCO – Karambir’. The writer said that since it is uncommon for households in Miri to have segregation bins, household waste is simply put into single rubbish bins, which eventually ends up in local landfills.
Even before the advent of COVID-19, Miri was battling with improper waste disposal and treatment, as well as its associated pollution of the environment. Now that the pandemic has spread across the world, including Miri, pollution levels have escalated, aided by the increased use of plastic packaging and irresponsible dumping of used face masks and medical waste as reported by the journal article ‘Face mask and medical waste disposal during the novel COVID-19 pandemic in Asia’ by Sarawut Sangkham.
According to staff at one of the recycling centres in Miri, most of the solid waste that ends up polluting the environment comes from households. The awareness of sustainable waste management and environmental protection in the general public and commercial sector is still poor. More educational programmes and awareness campaigns are required to get people to realise the seriousness and repercussions of environmental pollution.
A Greenpeace article titled ‘Responsible e-shopping in the time of Covid-19’ said that it takes an average of 12 minutes for single use-plastic to end up as waste in either the waste bin or the environment. This is very likely as 40 per cent of the plastic manufactured is used in the food and beverage industry, specifically in packaging, according to the Malaysia Plastic Manufacturing Association.
Consumption of plastic in Malaysia is generally high because of the abundant resources of oil and gas, which makes the production and consumption of virgin plastic cheaper. According to the recycling centres in Miri, the demand for recycled plastic is very low because it is less cost-effective compared to virgin plastic. Thus, businesses would naturally choose virgin plastic over recycled plastic because of the price difference. The recyclers also lament the lack of awareness and practice of recycling among Mirians. Most of the recyclables collected is still aluminium because of its high monetary value.
According to WWF Malaysia’s article ‘12MP to push scheme to cut plastic use, up recycling rate’, the recycling rate in the country is around 20 per cent, which is low when compared to neighbouring countries like Singapore; especially for plastic that ends up in landfills despite its recycling potential. Because of this low recycling rate, our landfills are being rapidly exhausted, reducing their designed service lifetime, according to the article ‘Challenges in selecting a sustainable landfill site in Malaysia’.
A global research done by Pew Research Center highlighted in an article ‘Concerns about the future of people’s wellbeing’, shows that people are generally becoming more complacent with technological advancements. With online shopping platforms being so convenient, for example, they can easily order food or products from the comfort of their homes and get it delivered to them. This is a psychological pattern that comes with improved standards of living and technological advancements, which makes it harder for people to practise sustainability beyond their convenience or comfort zones.
While COVID-19 remains our topmost concern, we should not neglect environmental protection and plastic pollution. One of the solutions to overcome the current solid waste management and pollution problems in Miri is by proper segregation of waste. The unsustainable practice of putting all types of waste in a single bin needs to be replaced by waste segregation according to the 3Rs of environmental protection – reduce, reuse and recycle.
Furthermore, the public is reminded to be conscious of the environmental impacts when celebrating major festivals like Christmas, Chinese New Year, Hari Raya and Gawai, which spark a lot of enthusiasm and excitement but can also generate considerable amounts of solid waste. Sustainable solid waste management and the fight against pollution is a collective responsibility. Everyone has a responsibility to protect our environment, for ourselves and future generations, rather than leaving all the burden and responsibility of solid waste management to the city authorities.
Smart World Sustainability (SWS) Curtin Malaysia is a project team affiliated to the Faculty of Engineering and Science at Curtin Malaysia. Consisting of students from different study disciplines who are passionate about environmental conservation and sustainability, the team aims to create a sustainable collection network for segregated solid wastes through the development of innovative digital solutions to supplement the existing solid waste management system in Miri. It also aims to promote awareness of sustainable and responsible management of solid wastes and participation by various sectors of the community in the initiative. The team can be contacted at WasteManagement@curtin.edu.my.