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Building Sabah’s Circular Plastic Economy

Photo by Mali Maeder-Pexels

There have been two recent stories about plastic waste: one speaks of hope and the other, hopelessness.

On April 30, seventy seven volunteers from various organisations and agencies in Kota Kinabalu, Sabah, braved the heavy rain to comb the beach at Likas Bay in search for plastic waste that had either been washed up on the shore or buried deep under the sand for a long time.

What they collected was a total of 764kg of plastic waste, all within just a couple of hours of work. Though it looked like one of those ordinary beach cleanups carried out by interest groups, it was not. It was to gather scientific data for what the Borneo state hopes to accomplish within the next five years – for Sabah to become ‘Plastic Neutral’.

Beach clean at Likas Bay
Sorting out different types of plastic waste

On May 5, national news agency Bernama reported that it would be tough for Malaysia to meet zero single-use plastic target by 2030 because of one deadly ‘illness’: public apathy.

“The road (to achieving the zero single-use plastic target) is getting harder… in fact, it may even be impossible,” Universiti Putra Malaysia Faculty of Forestry and Environment senior lecturer Dr Mohd Yusoff Ishak was quoted saying in that report.

The main problem, he said, was because people in general were not serious about the dangers of mismanaging plastic waste.

Malaysia ranks second in Asia for annual per capita plastic use.

But public apathy has no place and should have no place in where the entire world is going when it comes to plastic waste. Plastics can be found everywhere, including many tonnes up Mount Everest, at the bottom of the Mariana Trench, and even on the international space station.

Yet, decades of overuse and a surge in short-lived, single-use plastics have led to a global, environmental catastrophe. Up to 12 million tonnes of plastics are being swept into the oceans annually and gyres, or so called ‘islands of plastics’ are blossoming, says the United Nations.

While most plastics are expected to remain intact for decades or centuries after use, those that do erode end up as micro-plastics, consumed by fish and other marine wildlife, quickly making their way into the global food chain and ultimately affecting our own health. Indeed, micro-plastics have been found everywhere from the Arctic to the Swiss mountains, in tap water and in human feces, it adds.

The world, thankfully, has awakened from this nightmare with many from the highest governing bodies down to communities and individuals already blowing their horn to announce an all-out war against plastic waste.

Sabah is up to the fight

Despite facing with the problem of nationwide public apathy, Sabah really has no choice but to fight against plastic pollution.

The Borneo state has been labeled as the poorest, in the country. This has been told to the people repeatedly year in and year out leaving them with nothing but anger and frustration, and confused as to why until now there has been no real solution to put an end to the insulting ‘poorest state’ tag.

A goat spotted in Pulau Gaya with its head covered in a plastic bag – Photo by Leonard Alaza

Many insist that Sabah must find its own innovative solution to create its own wealth, even if it means making cash from trash. In fact, the state is never short of trash supply especially plastic waste. What a blessing in disguise.

So far, Sabah has been serious in pursuing this agenda as it sets its sight at becoming the first Plastic Neutral state. In May last year, the Kota Kinabalu City Hall signed a partnership with Blu Hope to implement solutions to plastic pollution in and around the capital city.

Overarching this planned initiative is the strong belief that plastic waste has monetary value and when intelligently exploited, it can create unlimited economic potentials.

“In order to achieve Sabah Plastic Neutral within the next five years (by end of 2026), we need to maximise value from plastic waste and bring real tangible value in recycling plastic waste,” Blu Hope’s founder Simon Christopher told The Star.

Currently, he said, there is little or no monetary value in plastic waste.

Ultimately, the goal is to create a new circular plastic economy for local communities and help to protect Sabah’s unique biodiversity.

Photo by Stijn Dijkstra-Pexels

Circular economy

Ellen Macarthur Foundation writes that a circular economy considers every stage of a product’s journey – before and after it reaches the customer. This approach is not only vital to stop plastic pollution, it also offers strong economic, social, and climate benefits.

It envisions that by 2040 a circular economy has the potential to reduce the annual volume of plastics entering our oceans by 80 per cent, reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 25 per cent, generate savings of USD 200 billion per year and create 700,000 net additional jobs.

‘In our current economy, we take materials from the Earth, make products from them, and eventually throw them away as waste – the process is linear. In a circular economy, by contrast, we stop waste being produced in the first place,’ it adds.

Photo by Lara Jameson-Pexels

To put an end to the problem, among others, calls for strong policies. The United Nations Environment Assembly, the world’s highest level decision-making body on the environment, in February was looking to advancing a global agreement on plastic pollution through a series of draft resolutions on biodiversity and health, green economy and circularity.

As the entire world is waking up to the fact that the current patterns of production and consumption are not sustainable in the long terms, a new model of circular economy is the way forward. It allows the planet to breathe while leaving no one behind.

There has to be a new way to grow the economy without causing further pain to the planet and people; global standards in product sustainability must be set; resource use must be kept within planetary boundaries and re-use of materials must be promoted as a lifestyle, a belief system.

Achieving this would lead to a healthier planet and more prosperous societies in the long term with new business models creating new jobs and lifestyles in the near future.

Backed by science

Global commitments however must be matched and driven by strong local actions. But to do this the authorities and stakeholders must first fully understand how big the plastic waste problem is.

“Where we are right now is we don’t know how big the problem is and how it has to be dealt with,” says Hazel Oakley, managing director of the Tropical Research and Conservation Centre (TRACC) which is a marine conservation organization based in the Celebes Sea dedicated to protecting sea turtles and restoring coral reefs destroyed by local fish bombing practices in Malaysia.

“Different components of the trash have to be dealt with differently. Like old mattresses have to go for pyrolysis, that’s waste to energy. Whereas glass bottles can be recycled and hard plastic can be reprocessed into school furniture. Some plastic can be made into tiles.

Photo by Krizjohn Rosales-Pexels

“So, what we’re trying to do is establish, first in KK then in Sabah, a circular waste collection system where we don’t just pile all the garbage into our dustbins and fill landfills.”

This is a big initiative between Blu Hope and the Kota Kinabalu City Hall as part of the ‘I Love KK I Love Clean KK’ programme that is supported by a whole range of organisations and community groups.

“I’m responsible for the science.”

“What I’m trying to find out is how big a backlog of trash we have. Then we will try to find out what the value might be. Because in the past trash hasn’t really have value. And now with the new recycling processes that are coming online it’s actually worth your while to collect the garbage. People have always collected steel and the aluminum. But now the hard plastic has value. So does the soft plastic where we starting to have processes that value old plastic bags and Maggi mee packets, food wrappers,” she says.


‘We’re going to make it happen’

Many who have now understood Sabah’s aspiration to become Plastic Neutral agree that the state cannot afford to be indifferent anymore. It is simple logic: the state has tonnes of unsustainably managed trash and they have value to fuel the economy and put food on people’s table.

But the question is: how can it be done?

It may sound too simplistic, but Blu Hope has devised a clever strategy to rewire the public’s poor habits when it comes to waste, specifically plastic waste. It ties the issue with human’s basic need for clean water and engages with children to educate adults.

A couple of months back, Blu Hope launched its ‘Water Is Life – Rethinking Plastics and Education Awareness Programme’ to educate and create awareness among school children. Through the programme, it will deploy water filters and bring clean water to schools in the state within the next three to four years.

“During this time, in collaboration with UK’s Ocean Generation we’ll implement the Rethinking Plastics where Sabah’s schools start a ‘plastic recycling revolution‘ with our Plastic Detectives programme. They will go home from school every day and remind their parents not to throw away plastics as they have value. It’s a clever idea because something that we adults rarely do. But when our children remind their parents, they will surely listen. So, after a while, this will get everyone into recycling. And we’ll make it a fun school programme where they’d be competitions and so on.”

“Children and young people in Sabah will drive this,” says Simon, adding that the programme is expected to kick start in June 2022.

Simon (fourth left) with some Pulau Gaya villagers looking at plastic trash washed up on to the shore.

With the reality that the majority of schools cannot provide reliable, safe clean drinking water – and are therefore completely dependent of plastic bottles. This integrated programme working closely with Sabah Education Department tackles both water security and plastic pollution at the same time. By combining Rethinking Plastics messaging with the installation of Fonto de Vivo’s innovative WHO-accredited ORISA water filters across all schools.

This programme will steadily expand to the first 30 schools with approximately 15,000 students and teachers. This first phase is expected to take about four months.

The Rethinking Plastic Programme will also see plastic waste collection pilot projects involving several condominiums and housing areas in the city including on the water villages on Pulau Gaya program having been started with a small grant from the French Embassy in KL.

The most important part of this process is everyone needs to start segregating their waste at source.

“This is the centre of gravity into making KK Plastic Neutral in two years. We hope by then, everyone in KK will be separating plastic that they use.

The whole idea of the segregation process aims toward changing the old way of simply dumping all garbage into bins and the landfill. No one knows the amount of trash that is going to be collected from the community over time. What people can be certain is that it is going to be huge. But by having a circular waste management available to the public, their value will be quantifiable. And this will be the big difference.

Proof of concept: Circular Plastic Economy addresses Fish bombing problem

Perhaps one good proof of concept on how a circular plastic economy in Sabah would directly benefit the community will be on the state’s food security issue: fish bombing.

While such activity is a criminal offence, it is argued that for some folks, fish bombing is a means to provide food for their families. But this form of destructive fishing has caused serious damage to the marine ecosystem, to Sabah’s food source.

So far, the response to the issue has been on tightening enforcement which is now armed with detection technology deployed especially by the Stop Fish Bombing, a local NGO. Their real time data has helped shorten the long arm of the law and brought the poor bombers to face justice.

But many organisations have realised that enforcement is not enough to solve the problem.

The monetary value from plastic waste is hoped to be able to provide an alternative livelihood for communities on the islands of Kota Kinabalu. After all, these locations have a sustainable supply and critical mass of plastic waste.

“It’ll be their new ‘makan’ (source of livelihood),” says Simon.

Photo by 7inchs-Pexels

Rethinking Plastic

Until now, plastic waste in Sabah has been going into the environment: to the rivers, ocean, landfills and everywhere.

There needs to be a total rethinking and re-engineering process on how Sabahans use plastic. Blu Hope’s initial effort – through all its projects – in driving Sabah toward becoming Plastic Neutral and building a circular plastic economy will provide evidence that the state can make it happen. In fact, it must.

Sabah must embrace a new circular economy. The world demands so. After all, this state is home to the best that Mother Nature has to offer. It would be catastrophic to see them being further suffocated by plastic waste; trash that now, thanks to technology, has value to the economy and people.

Featured photo by Tom Fisk-Pexels

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