Sunday, August 26, 2018

Letter to the Editor: ECRL cancellation financially and environmentally the right move


LETTER TO THE EDITOR:
ECRL CANCELLATION FINANCIALLY AND ENVIRONMENTALLY THE RIGHT MOVE

The Prime Minister’s decision to cancel the East Coast Rail Link (ECRL) and gas pipeline projects makes economic and environmental sense. For the sake of Malaysia’s natural environment, it is hoped that none of these projects would be revived even when it becomes financially viable to proceed with them at a later stage. 

The ECRL, had the construction works proceeded, would have bisected the Rantau Panjang Forest Reserve (RPFR) into two separate forest areas. This would have effectively fragmented over 230 hectares of the RPFR, cut off any possible safe wildlife corridors and increased the risk of human-wildlife conflicts and wildlife deaths. 

The plans for the proposed ECRL rail alignment also showed that it was to cut through a section of mangrove forest as it approached Port Klang. This would have grave consequences on the health of the mangrove ecosystem in the area, which as we all know, plays an important role in erosion prevention, flood mitigation, water quality regulation, and as nurseries for fish and other marine life. Not only that, the project would have also been detrimental to the livelihood, agricultural and fishing activities and water supply of the local coastal communities. The project is said to be capable of creating business and employment opportunities, but it is foreseeable that it would also affect the livelihood and quality of life of rural communities. It is hoped that all future infrastructure projects will take these factors into consideration before proposing activities that will alter the landscape of mangrove forests.

The ECRL project, had it proceeded, would affect up to 12 forest reserves, including the Central Forest Spine (CFS), 5 major rivers in Kelantan, 16 rivers in Terengganu, 5 rivers in Pahang and 1 river in Selangor. The environmental cost of the project is simply too high for a rail link that most Malaysians perceive to be an expensive convenience that may be nice to have but is inessential and unnecessary. 

Although the ECRL project team and the previous Ministry of Natural Resources and the Environment had in 2017 attempted to reassure environmental organisations that the project would reduce forest loss and wildlife deaths through the use of an estimated 45 tunnels and 29 wildlife viaducts, it cannot be denied that wildlife populations, air and water quality and forested areas would still be adversely affected by the project, both during the construction process and after the completion of the project. Tunnels, fences and wildlife viaducts and crossings may not always provide a solution and may indeed create fresh problems for wildlife populations. Fences erected to prevent wildlife from encroaching onto railway tracks could further fragment habitats and limit a species’ natural range and breeding opportunities. A study conducted by wildlife researchers with the Department of Wildlife and National Parks (Perhilitan) from 2011-2013 on the effectiveness and usefulness of wildlife viaducts found that the viaducts studied were only effective crossing structures for only a few species, and that some species took a longer time to adapt to new crossing structures (Source: The Star, 22 Sept 2014). In the meantime, more wildlife lives would be lost to traffic and human-wildlife conflict, including hunting and illegal poaching. The same study also recorded the presence of hunters and campers at the viaducts, thus highlighting the fact that one cannot just construct a wildlife viaduct and expect it to mitigate wildlife deaths by the mere fact of its existence. Wildlife viaducts and crossings need constant maintenance and monitoring, and in spite of this may still not register the desired level of effectiveness. The best option is always to divert and realign any proposed infrastructures away from environmentally-sensitive areas. Opening up forested areas for road, highway and railway construction has almost invariably led to an increase in illegal logging, poaching, and hunting and the conversion of forests into land for human activity.


Now that the project has been cancelled and construction sites and cleared forests will be left behind, I support and commend Ketari assemblywoman Young Shefura Othman’s recommendation that the abandoned project sites be restored and replanted with trees without delay to prevent greater environmental damage, landslides, flash floods and the encroachment of poachers, loggers and illegal settlers. 

The viability of all existing and future infrastructure projects should not merely be based on the availability of funds and the projected return on investment. It should always prioritise the environment and consider factors such as how it would affect ecologically sensitive areas, watersheds, hill slopes. wildlife and bird habitats, water and air quality, and rural and indigenous communities. Financial debts can be paid off over time, but environmental damage and biodiversity loss can be almost impossible to rectify. 


WONG EE LYNN
COORDINATOR,
GREEN LIVING SPECIAL INTEREST GROUP,
MALAYSIAN NATURE SOCIETY

Monday, August 6, 2018

Quick Facts About Marine Plastics

QUICK FACTS:
HOW DO PLASTICS END UP IN OUR OCEANS?


1.      Scientists have shown that up to 12 million tons of plastic are entering our oceans every year. That’s a rubbish truck full every minute. Single-use packaging for food and drink is a particularly common part of the problem.

2.      About 1/5 of marine litter is made up of fishing gear, materials lost at sea by accident, industrial losses or illegal dumping. Roughly 4/5 (80%) of marine litter comes from land.

3.      When plastic waste is collected and transported to landfill sites, it can be at risk of falling off, blowing away and ending up in the environment. Even in landfills, plastic is at risk of blowing away and ending up in drains, rivers and oceans because of its light weight.

4.      Plastic litter end up carried by wind and rain into our drainage networks or rivers, where they eventually flow into the sea. Major rivers around the world carry an estimated 1.15 – 2.41 million tons of plastics into the oceans every year.

5.      Lenient standards in industrial processes are responsible for some plastic, particularly small bits of plastic resin pellets called ‘nurdles’ or ‘mermaid’s tears’, getting into the environment, either when products containing plastic are not disposed of properly, or when these plastics escape during the production or transportation processes.

6.      Many of the products we use daily, including wet wipes, cotton buds, sanitary products, microbeads from cosmetics and cleaning products and microfibers from clothes, are flushed down toilets or sinks and released into our waterways. Microbeads and microfibers are too small to be filtered out by wastewater plants and end up being consumed by marine animals.

(Sources: greenpeace.org.uk and wwf.org.uk)

QUICK FACTS:
WHY DO SO MUCH MARINE PLASTICS SEEM TO ORIGINATE FROM DEVELOPING COUNTRIES?


1.      90% of marine plastics come from just 10 rivers in the world. 8 of these are in Asia: Yangtze, Indus, Yellow (Huanghe), Hai He, Ganges, Pearl, Amur and Mekong. 2 are in Africa: Nile and Niger.

2.      These rivers all have 2 things in common: A generally high population living in the surrounding region – sometimes into the hundreds of millions – and an inadequate and flawed waste collection and management process.

3.      Nearly 1/3 of plastics in the world are not properly collected, recycled or disposed of, as these countries lack strong waste management infrastructure. These plastics end up as litter in the world’s lands, rivers and oceans.

4.      The world is on track to exceed 9.5 billion people by 2050, with fewer living in poverty than today. Thanks to the rapid industrialisation of developing countries like China, India and Malaysia, the global middle class is exploding, meaning a lot more people want to buy a lot more things. Often these fancy new things are sold in ways that were uncommon 20-30 years ago – vegetables individually wrapped in clingfilm, party packs and door gifts, and individually wrapped biscuits and crackers.

5.      This does not mean that wealthier or developed nations do not need to address their use of plastic – they still do! All nations and corporations must make efforts to reduce plastic production and use. The problem isn’t merely that plastic waste is not managed properly. It is that way too much plastic is being produced. Even in developed nations such as the UK, only 1/3 of plastic packaging used in consumer products is recycled.

[Sources: World Economic Forum (weforum.org), World Resources Institute (wri.org) and Ellen Macarthur Foundation (ellenmacarthurfoundation.org)]

QUICK FACTS:
WHY ISN’T PLASTIC RECYCLING ENOUGH?


1.      Existing recycling technology isn’t good enough. Most plastics that are recycled are shredded and reprocessed into lower-value plastics, such as polyester carpet fibre. Only 2% are recycled into products of the same quality. This is largely due to limitations in how plastics can be sorted by chemical composition and cleaned of additives.

2.      The trouble is that we are also using a lot more plastics and generating a lot more waste. We use 20 times as much plastic as we did 50 years ago. Businesses create more and more single-use plastics to meet consumers’ expectations for convenience. This is a problem because when exposed to sunlight, oxygen or water, plastics will not biodegrade but will fragment into smaller and smaller particles until these microplastics enter into the food chain, air, soil and water. Latest studies show that plastic also releases methane  -- a potent greenhouse gas – as it decomposes.

3.      Not all plastic is recyclable. Recycling won’t be able to deal with foam products, microbeads, microfibers, plastic-coated products and oxo-degradable plastic bags. For example, disposable coffee cups are made of high quality cellulose fibres and a polyethylene inner coating that are tightly bonded together and consequently, difficult to separate and recycle.

4.      Many developed nations, including those in the European Union, have taken the easy option of exporting plastic waste to China and other developing countries – the same countries lacking sufficient infrastructure to manage their own plastic waste! The assumption is that these plastics are being properly recycled, but in reality, the public and government have little idea where the plastic ultimately ends up after it has been exported. It is likely that poor quality materials end up in the local, inadequate waste management system. The developed world clearly needs a circular economy – one that does not rely on shipping materials halfway around the world for them to be reused, but one that keeps resources in use for as long as possible and recovers and keeps materials in the economic cycle.


[Sources: World Resources Institute (wri.org) and Grantham Institute (granthaminstitute.org)]

Monday, July 30, 2018

Letter To The Editor: Reconsider Construction of PIL1 Highway


LETTER TO THE EDITOR:
RECONSIDER CONSTRUCTION OF PIL1 HIGHWAY

The Penang State Government should consider all points of view before being defensive over the proposed Pan-Island Link 1 (PIL1) highway plans. Before the 14th General Elections, Pakatan Harapan had promised to review mega projects and re-evaluate the necessity, economic feasibility and benefits of highway and infrastructure projects. Concerned citizens have now highlighted the risks of increased air, water and soil pollution and increased traffic from the proposed PIL1 highway plans. To dismiss their concerns would be to dismiss the concepts of transparency, democracy and public participation that the Pakatan Harapan government claims to be committed to.   

Whether or not PIL1 will result in the decrease of property values or cut through Penang’s Youth Park is secondary to the undeniable fact that PIL1, and indeed, any highway construction project, will result in poorer water and air quality for residents, and possibly more dry spells due to reduced watershed areas, and more wildlife roadkills due to greater fragmentation of areas able to support animal and bird populations.

The construction process itself will result in an increase in air and water pollution, waste generated and traffic congestion due to construction vehicles and traffic diversions. Road and highway projects do not benefit the lower-income and marginalized groups who cannot afford to own vehicles and use highways, and yet these are the groups most likely to be adversely affected by heavier traffic, noise pollution and poorer air quality.

The argument that highways are necessary for the alleviation of traffic congestion is fallacious, and anyone involved in public planning and transport policies can attest to the fact that the construction of more roads and highways will only lead to the well-known and long-established effect known as “induced traffic”.

Whenever a new road is built, more traffic will divert onto it, as more motorists would make the decision to make trips they would otherwise not make, and travel longer distances because of the presence of a new road. Commuters who would otherwise plan their trips and manage their time in order to carpool or take public transport would be persuaded to drive instead, as the existence of a new highway would persuade them that it would be more comfortable, convenient and time-saving to drive. Instead of planning their routes to avoid peak hour traffic, motorists would opt to drive on highways in the belief that it could accommodate more traffic and shorten their routes.

The solutions to the problem of traffic congestion are to make better use of the state’s existing road and transport systems, improve public transport, reduce incentives for private vehicle usage, and improve road safety for public transport users, cyclists and pedestrians. Penang and indeed most of Peninsular Malaysia has the infrastructure for an efficient public transport system, but unfortunately not the political will or societal commitment to make public transport systems reliable, punctual, convenient, affordable and safe. Improving road safety and the public transport system will use less public funds, benefit a greater strata of society, have a lower environmental and carbon footprint and take less time to implement than constructing more highways and roads.

Just as adding new roads and highways would not reduce traffic congestion, removing existing roads will not exacerbate the problem either. When Paris downsized and reduced roadways, motorists simply readjusted to the new system and up to 20% of commuters switched to public transport. When San Francisco removed the Central Freeway in 1989, motorists eased into using a smaller boulevard without difficulty. When Seoul shut down a highway and replaced it with a river, parkland and smaller roads, traffic situations did not change but air quality and city living conditions improved. The Penang State Government is not required to make a decision as radical as closing down existing roads. It would, however, be courageous and responsible for it to review and reconsider the necessity of PIL1.

WONG EE LYNN
COORDINATOR,
GREEN LIVING SPECIAL INTEREST GROUP,
MALAYSIAN NATURE SOCIETY


Sunday, July 1, 2018

Letter to the Editor: Making A Ban On Single-Use Plastics Work


LETTER TO THE EDITOR
MAKING A BAN ON SINGLE-USE PLASTICS WORK

Our Minister of Housing and Local Government YB Datuk Zuraida Kamaruddin and Penang Chief Minister Chow Kon Yeow’s proposal to ban single-use plastic packaging for environmental reasons is a welcome move.

We have seen both within Malaysia and abroad that voluntary plastic bag reduction campaigns have not worked. Trying to engender voluntary change often means investing a lot of money into public education and outreach efforts for very low success rates. Statistics have shown that awareness does not always translate into a shift in consumer behaviour, even in developed nations such as the USA and Australia. For plastic waste reduction strategies to work, public education campaigns must be held together with plastic packaging bans. Behavioural change will take place only when a binding policy with a system of penalties and enforcement is in place.

It must be pointed out, however, that a nationwide ban on single-use plastic packaging can only begin to register positive results if the ban is extended to the retail sale of packaging and to fast food outlets, food courts, markets, hawkers, petty traders and businesses other than supermarkets and major retailers. Currently, plastic bags, disposable plastic tableware and styrofoam and plastic food packaging can still be purchased from supermarkets and retail stores. This defeats the purpose of banning free plastic bags and the sale of food in styrofoam packaging if consumers can still purchase these items cheaply off supermarket or shop shelves.

In fact, one of the major complaints by consumers following the Selangor State Government’s ban on polystyrene food packaging and free plastic bags in 2017 is that the ban is a financial burden on consumers since they now have to pay for the plastic bags and packaging by buying them from shops rather than obtaining them for free with every purchase. From this complaint, it is clear that the move has not resulted in sufficient behavioural and attitude change and has only resulted in consumers purchasing more packaging instead of giving up or using less plastic packaging for environmental reasons. To wean the nation off single-use plastics, we need to remove the option of being able to purchase single-use plastics cheaply and conveniently.

If the protection of wildlife and the natural environment is our objective in reducing plastic waste, then this policy must necessarily extend beyond plastic bags and also cover other single-use plastics including all styrofoam products, plastic drinking straws, plastic cup lids, plastic meat and produce trays, clingfilm, plastic cotton buds, disposable cutlery, food takeaway packaging and other environmentally harmful products such as plastic glitter and toiletries containing microbeads. Oxo-degradable plastic bags that are not truly compostable and biodegradable and non-woven shopping bags should also be banned, as they disintegrate into toxic petro-polymers and should not therefore be marketed or used as alternatives to conventional plastic bags. As long as these items are not included in the ban, it will be very difficult to mitigate the environmental damage caused by plastic bags.

To resolve the issue of consumers claiming that they now need to purchase rubbish bags since retailers are no longer giving out free plastic bags, we can introduce a policy allowing only the distribution of plastic bags above 20 micron (0.02 mm) in thickness and with a minimum capacity of 10 litres, the cost of which will be borne by consumers to increase the chances that these plastic bags are reused for storage and waste disposal, and are only purchased if necessary. Over time, conventional plastic bags and rubbish bags, including pet waste bags, should be phased out and banned and replaced with compostable bags that conform to compostability standards ASTM D6400 or EN 13432.

Retailers and manufacturers need to be given some time, for example, one year, to phase out the production, sale and distribution of single-use plastics. This will give both businesses and consumers time to make changes and source for alternatives. This will require regulations that will not only regulate the sale and distribution of plastic bags and other single-use plastics by retailers, but also regulations to stop fast food outlets and eateries from giving out plastic lids, straws and plastic cutlery for free, clinics and service providers to stop distributing medicine and other items in lightweight plastic bags, and food and beverage manufacturers to phase out excessive plastic packaging such as individually-wrapped biscuits and snack foods and 3-in-1 beverage sachets, which are convenience products and were not even common until the last decade or two. Incentives must be created to not only allow but encourage consumers to buy items such as vegetables loose or using their own produce bags, and to phase out the practice of wrapping individual fruits, vegetables and other products in clingfilm and selling such products in trays covered in clingfilm. Styrofoam and soft plastic supermarket produce and food trays are generally not recyclable, and even those that are made of recyclable plastics are not recovered for recycling due to its low grade and the fact that once contaminated by food and grease, it is no longer accepted for recycling. As paper bags have a high carbon and water footprint despite being less harmful to wildlife and human health, they should be used only sparingly as an alternative to plastic bags, for example, its use should be restricted to the sale and serving of food, and not as grocery and shopping bags. Alternatives to single-use plastics can include either biodegradable and compostable trays and packaging, or higher-grade recyclable plastic containers with lids (to eliminate the need for clingfilm and shrink wrap) that are recovered for recycling through a container deposit and recycling buyback system.

Volunteers who participate in beach and jungle clean-ups in Malaysia will find that a lot of the litter consists of items with a purportedly high recycling value, such as aluminium cans and PET bottles. This would indicate that there are not enough financial incentives for recycling in Malaysia. To increase solid waste recycling rates and reduce littering, I would recommend introducing a container deposit legislation such as those in place in Norway, Germany and Sweden. To make the financial incentive for recycling higher, the deposit needs to be of significant value, for example, 20 to 50 sen per item. The consumers bear the cost of this deposit, which they can then recover by collecting and returning the items for recycling. This container deposit system should include aluminium, steel and unbroken glass containers, plastic bottles including shampoo and detergent bottles and plastic containers such as the ones recommended above to replace plastic supermarket and food trays. It is not necessary to have expensive automated reverse vending machines or door-to-door collection systems to implement this container deposit system. We can use existing recycling collection centres and buyback centres and existing infrastructure such as local council offices, schools, residents’ association centres and community centres as recycling buyback centres.

To reduce littering in national parks and areas of ecological significance, entrance fees and hiking and camping permits should include an entry inspection system to charge hikers, campers and picnickers a deposit for each item in disposable packaging brought into the park, and refund the same only when these items are brought back for disposal upon exit.

Bans on lightweight plastic bags and single-use plastics are neither new nor revolutionary, and countries and cities that have implemented it report of positive consumer behavioural change and a reduction in littering. Since Denmark introduced a charge on plastic bags in 1993, the usage of plastic bags has been halved from 800 million bags to 400 million bags annually. The People’s Republic of China reported a 66% drop in plastic bag usage since its ban on lightweight plastic bags. Ireland’s plastic bag tax resulted in a 95% reduction in plastic bag litter. Kenya’s ban on plastic bags, described as the World’s Toughest Plastic Bag Ban, has shown such positive results within a year that neighbouring countries – Burundi, Tanzania, Uganda and South Sudan – are considering following suit. The European Union has also in May 2018 proposed a ban on plastic cotton buds, drink stirrers, drinking straws and balloon sticks to cut down on marine litter. Considering that bans and taxes on single-use plastics have been successfully implemented and upheld in both developed and developing nations and jurisdictions, there is no reason why it cannot be effective and similarly successful in Malaysia.

A reduction in plastic waste and litter is not only beneficial to wildlife and the natural environment. Governments and local authorities stand to gain economically from the reduced costs of cleaning up public spaces and processing waste in landfills. Less plastic litter would result in fewer clogged drains and streams and fewer flash floods. There would be fewer breeding grounds for mosquitoes, rats and other disease vectors if there were less litter and fewer landfills. Governments and local businesses would benefit from increased tourism opportunities when recreational areas and tourist destinations are cleaner and free from litter. Clearly a ban on single-use plastics will require minor adjustments and behavioural change on the part of Malaysians, but the long-term benefits to the environment, society and the economy will outweigh any initial inconvenience.

WONG EE LYNN
COORDINATOR,
GREEN LIVING SPECIAL INTEREST GROUP,
MALAYSIAN NATURE SOCIETY


Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Letter to the Editor: Reduce Waste and Consider the Environment During and After Election Campaigns


LETTER TO THE EDITOR

REDUCE WASTE AND CONSIDER THE ENVIRONMENT DURING AND AFTER ELECTION CAMPAIGNS

 

Now that the 2018 General Elections are over, I believe voters on both sides of the political divide can agree on one issue – that too much waste has been generated by both political coalitions during the campaign period. The sheer amount of waste generated and public funds and political donations expended in producing campaign materials and carrying out campaigns has an environmental and social impact.

 

I am of the opinion that the existing campaign spending cap of RM200,000 for each Parliamentary seat and RM100,000 for each State seat under the Election Offences Act 1954 is sufficient and should not be raised. We have seen for ourselves that an increasingly informed electorate is not swayed by handouts or the number of flags or banners, but has progressively relied more and more on social media, the internet and other independent sources of news to keep itself abreast of political news and developments. The funding of, and spending for, election campaigns are therefore not as necessary as we are led to believe it to be. A draft Political Donations and Expenditure Bill to curtail corruption and money politics was presented to the Attorney-General in 2017 but was not tabled in Parliament before the 14th General Elections. There is now a pressing need to table and review this Bill in the interests of transparency and integrity.

 

Apart from the link between political donations, undue influence and corruption, as an environmentally-minded citizen, I am of the opinion that enforcing the election campaign spending cap, monitoring donations and having clear guidelines on election spending and campaigning will pressure political parties and their campaign teams to be more careful about how funds are used, and this may in turn result in less indiscriminate production and display of election campaign paraphernalia.

 

During the recent campaign period, the sheer volume and density of election posters and flags in some areas pose a hazard to road-users and citizens. Traffic lights and signs are obscured and pedestrians have to look out for falling makeshift billboards and flagpoles. Restrictions on the number of physical campaign materials that each candidate is allowed to display in each area will force campaign teams to be more discerning and mindful as to what and how many materials to produce and where to affix them. 

 

It is not enough that political parties remove all campaign materials within 14 days after polling day. To demonstrate their commitment to the environment and prudent use of resources, political parties should endeavour to avoid generating excessive waste in the first place. We currently have non-governmental organisations collecting used and discarded party banners for repurposing and ‘upcycling’ into tote bags, sleeping mats for the homeless and the like. While this is creative and commendable, it should not be the responsibility of NGOs to find ways to delay the journey of campaign materials to the landfill. It should be the responsibility of parties, candidates and their campaign teams to find ways to reduce the amount of waste going to landfills and the corresponding expenses of collecting and transporting the waste.

 

Guidelines can be drawn up to put pressure on candidates and their campaign teams to:

1.      Reduce the amount of new campaign materials produced;

2.      Avoid using campaign materials that are toxic, polluting or non-recyclable;

3.      Produce more durable campaign materials (especially party flags, caps and t-shirts) that can be used over and over again;

4.      Produce campaign materials that can be more easily composted, recycled or repurposed;

5.      Avoid nailing campaign materials to trees or affixing campaign materials in environmentally-sensitive areas, such as near nature reserves and bird habitats;

6.      Avoid producing, buying or using materials that pose a threat to wildlife, such as styrofoam, balloons, and firecrackers, and leaving exposed wires and trailing strings after affixing campaign materials, as these could harm pedestrians and animals;

7.      Ensure that assemblies and ceramahs are held far from known bird and wildlife habitats such as urban parks and recreational forests, and reduce noise and light pollution during such events;

8.      Avoid giving out flyers and handouts during election campaigns and assemblies; and

9.      Provide campaign teams and agents with food and water that is not served in single-use disposable packaging.

 

The practice of providing food, gifts, goodie bags and promotional materials during campaigns should be eradicated completely as these not only create waste and litter but constitute money politics.

 

Although the General Elections typically take place only once every five years, it is absurd to justify wasteful and destructive practices on the basis that the elections do not occur very frequently. Election campaigns can and should be carried out with as little harm on the environment and community as possible. For political parties and candidates, remember that your work is a better testimony of your worth and better predictor of your election success than any billboard, poster or handout could ever be.   

 

 

WONG EE LYNN

COORDINATOR,

GREEN LIVING SPECIAL INTEREST GROUP,

MALAYSIAN NATURE SOCIETY

 

 

Oil Palm,The RSPO and Sustainability: The Way Forward


PENCINTA ALAM JUNE 2018

GREEN LIVING COLUMN

OIL PALM, THE RSPO AND SUSTAINABILITY: THE WAY FORWARD

By Wong Ee Lynn


 

In the April and May 2018 Green Living columns, we had a brief overview of the environmental issues surrounding monoculture crops, the problems with oil palm cultivation and the reason why the European Parliament proposed a ban on palm oil biodiesel. Palm oil, along with other agricultural commodities such as soy, coffee, cocoa, rapeseed oil and other vegetable oils, has been blamed for causing environmental destruction, deforestation and human rights violations to its workers and rural and indigenous communities. This has led consumers and NGOs to pressure palm oil companies to clean up their act. Some environmental organisations, activists and consumer groups have called for bans on palm oil products, while some countries have laws that require manufacturers to clearly label palm oil as an ingredient in food and consumer products.

 

Today we explore a few questions related to whether oil palm cultivation can be made sustainable, and what we can do as consumers and activists.

 

 

Q: IS THERE SUCH A THING AS SUSTAINABLE PALM OIL?

 

Boycotting palm oil presents challenges. Considering that palm oil is cheaper and more resource-efficient than other vegetable oils (i.e. alternative vegetable oil crops may use up to 10 times more land. Source: spott.org) and the fact that the palm oil industry employs about 6 million people worldwide, boycotting palm oil may result in loss of jobs and income, palm oil producers selling to markets which don’t value the environment, and a lack of incentive for palm oil producers to find more sustainable ways to produce palm oil.

 

Sustainable palm oil is produced by companies that promise No Deforestation, No Peat Development and No Exploitation (‘NDPE’). These policies are usually applicable across the company’s supply chains, including third party suppliers and smallholders. They require farmers to stop burning land to clear it, assess land for high carbon stock and high conservation value before developing new plantations, and obtain land use permission from communities using a process known as ‘Free, Prior and Informed Consent’. Companies with NDPE policies in effect include Musim Mas, Golden-Agri Resources, Wilmar International, Cargill and Asian Agri. (Source: eco-business.com).

 

These requirements are reflected in the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil’s certification system.

 

Q: WHAT IS THE RSPO AND ITS CRITERIA FOR CERTIFICATION?

 

The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) was established in 2004 to promote the production and use of sustainable palm oil. It is estimated that 40% of the world’s palm oil producers are members of the RSPO. Sustainable palm oil is defined by the 8 principles and criteria against which oil palm plantations are certified. RSPO’s 8 principles are:

(i)                 Commitment to transparency;

(ii)               Compliance with applicable laws and regulations.

(iii)             Commitment to long-term economic and financial viability;

(iv)             Use of appropriate best practices by growers and millers;

(v)               Environmental responsibility and conservation of natural resources and biodiversity;

(vi)             Responsible consideration of employees as well as individuals and communities affected by growers and mills;

(vii)           Responsible development of new plantations; and

(viii)         Commitment to continuous improvement in key areas of activity.

 

RSPO’s criteria are reviewed every 5 years via public consultation, followed by member agreement on a consensus basis for any changes or additions. (Source: greenpalm.org)

 

There are 4 types of Certified Sustainable Palm Oil (CSPO), namely:

(i)                 Identity Preserved (IP): The end user can trace the unit of palm oil to a single RSPO-certified supply base (i.e. single plantation).

(ii)               Segregated (SG): Palm fruit from multiple certified plantations are combined at the mill. The resulting CSPO is kept physically separate through the supply chain, but cannot be traced back to a single plantation.

(iii)             Mass Balanced (MB): The mill takes in palm fruit from certified and non-certified plantations and processes it together. The resulting oil is not physically linked to sustainable plantations, but the miller keeps track of how much sustainable palm oil it is producing and selling.

(iv)             Book & Claim (B&C): Manufacturers do not have to buy CSPO, but can pay for ‘RSPO Credits’ in an online marketplace to claim sustainability credentials. The funds from these sales support farmers to implement sustainable farming practices.

 

CSPO currently makes up approximately 21% of the world’s total palm oil supply.

 

Q: BUT WAIT! WHAT IS THIS I HEAR ABOUT CRITICISMS OF THE RSPO AND ITS CERTIFICATION SYSTEM?

 

Environmental organisations and investors have routinely criticised RSPO for failing to provide a credible assurance that CSPO is truly sustainable. Its current principles and criteria do not require companies to stop expanding onto peatlands or to stop clearing forest as per the High Carbon Stock approach. The auditors that verify company compliance to RSPO standards have also been accused of malpractice and corruption.

 

Activists have also criticised the speed and effectiveness with which RSPO investigates and resolves complaints made against its members. Some complaints have taken years to resolve, while other companies have allegedly been let off the hook too easily. The UK and Washington DC-based non-profit organisation, Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), released a 2015 report on malpractices by RSPO auditors, which included failure to spot violations and even abetting companies with cover-ups. The report suggested that RSPO-certified consumer products could be “tainted with human trafficking, rights abuses and the destruction of biodiversity.”

 

The RSPO is also making very little progress when it comes to ethics traceability in the world’s palm oil supply chain. In its 2016 report, RSPO admitted that the problem of child labour in palm oil plantations makes it “clearer that much work needs to be done.” (Source: triplepundit.com)

 

EIA and another non-profit organisation, Grassroots, found that monitoring of the RSPO system is not carried out by RSPO or its auditors, but by NGOs and communities. Many complaints of violations of RSPO’s principles and criteria, including some that were confirmed by the RSPO’s Complaints Panel, exposed an unfortunate truth: The world’s only global palm oil certification system – meant to ensure sustainability, human rights, labour standards, respect for the law and environmental protection in the sector – fails to achieve what it was set up to do. (Source: theecologist.org)

 

 

Q: IF THE WORLD’S ONLY CERTIFICATION BODY IS NOT CREDIBLE, WHAT CAN I DO AS A CONSUMER?

 

(i)                 Lack of awareness is a major issue. Make a conscious effort to learn about the exact ingredients of the products you purchase. Europe is leading the way with the introduction of mandatory labelling of products containing vegetable oils.

(ii)               WWF International stated in 2014 that Asian markets, being the biggest consumers of palm oil products, could drive and shape the industry. What you buy, and what you demand from manufacturers and producers, will force brands to act. Businesses will have to buckle to consumer pressure to be more transparent and responsible.

(iii)             Greenpeace International advises that the RSPO standards are not strong enough to prevent deforestation, and advises companies to seek certification with the Charter of the Palm Oil Innovation Group. Look out for these other certification bodies and groups and read about the companies and manufacturers whose products you most frequently purchase. Responsible sourcing will boost a brand.

(iv)             Use your voice. Write to big companies, especially the biggest snack food and processed food companies, to voice your concern about deforestation and human rights violations. Sign petitions to big corporations and the government, and use these petitions to help educate others and raise awareness about why you make the choices you do.  

(v)               Reducing your consumption of processed foods not only means reducing your dependence on palm oil and other vegetable oils, but also plastic packaging and the fuel miles your food had to travel to get to you. Think about whether it is important for you to have that packet of crisps or bar of chocolate right now, if there is the option of having a banana or corn on the cob instead.

(vi)             Learn about new technologies that are cleaning up the palm oil industry and which companies are investing in these technologies. It is not all bad news. In 2017, the Malaysian Palm Oil Board (MPOB) and Orion Genomics developed a cheap plastic device with which subsistence farmers could punch samples from the leaves of their young palm plants. The samples are mailed to a laboratory which carries out molecular testing and informs the farmers which plants are viable, and which plants are a bad investment. This would help farmers reliably boost yields and reduce the motivation to spread oil palm plantations into forested areas, as less land would be needed to generate the same yield. (Source: bigthink.com) Products and technologies such as these which improve quality over quantity can ultimately reduce the need to keep opening up new lands for new plantings.