Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Letter to the Editor: Protect Ulu Muda from Logging

The report of continued logging activities in the Ulu Muda forest complex (The Star, 9 March 2017) is a cause for alarm. The Green Living Special Interest Group of the Malaysian Nature Society supports the call of Sahabat Alam Malaysia and the Penang Water Supply Corporation to terminate all logging and quarrying activities in the Ulu Muda forest complex immediately.
The 160,000-hectare forest complex, covering 7 forest reserves, is a critical water catchment area for the northern states of Kedah, Perlis and Penang and supplies water to, among others, the Ahning, Muda and Pedu Dams. According to the World Wildlife Fund for Nature (WWF) Malaysia, the Ulu Muda forest complex supplies as much as 96% of Kedah’s, 50% of Perlis’ and 80% of Penang’s water supply.
The Kedah State Government has been aware of the logging activities in the Ulu Muda Forest Reserve for years, and the Kedah Water Supply, Water Resources and Energy Committee had assured the public since last year that it would look into the issue of logging permits and the possibility of gazetting the entire forest reserve as a water catchment area (The Star, 16 May 2016).
The 2016 drought affecting the northern states of Peninsular Malaysia is directly linked to logging activities in the Ulu Muda forest complex, which affected climate and water cycle patterns, resulting in a massive decline in dam water levels and a postponement of the paddy planting season.
In addition to providing water for domestic, industrial and agricultural use, Ulu Muda also provides vital ecological services such as climate regulation, soil erosion prevention, biodiversity conservation and maintenance of soil, water and air quality.
Without the root system of this rainforest complex to absorb and slowly release rainwater, heavy monsoon rains would end up washing over the exposed cleared forests, resulting in soil erosion, landslides, flash floods and the silting of rivers. Forest clearing releases stored carbon dioxide, which traps heat and contributes to atmospheric warming.
A fully-grown tree releases 1,000 litres of water vapour a day into the atmosphere. The reduced ability of a cleared or decimated forest to absorb solar energy and release water vapour leads to higher temperatures and a decline in rainfall. One can imagine the ecological fallout if logging were allowed to continue in Ulu Muda. 
From a human dimension, Ulu Muda provides economic and sociocultural services which include ecotourism, the harvesting of forest products and a home for indigenous and rural communities.
The preservation of the Ulu Muda forest complex is not a political issue and not merely the concern of environmental organisations. It affects the very survival and food and water security of a significant percentage of the population of Peninsular Malaysia. When the survival of present and future populations is at stake, apportioning blame to political parties and previous administrations is unproductive and downright harmful.
Malaysia stands to gain more economic benefits from keeping its forests intact and biologically diverse, than from issuing permits for logging, mining and road construction in forested areas. The economic benefits of logging are short-lived and can sustain only 1-2 generations at most. If the federal and state governments wish to cultivate long-term prosperity, they need to afford greater protection to rainforests, which are worth more alive than dead. There is little point in governmental and municipal initiatives such as recycling and tree-planting campaigns, which smack of environmental tokenism, if state governments and the Federal Government are unwilling to cooperate to conserve and protect the Ulu Muda forest complex.  

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Letter to the Editor: Benefits of Plastic Bag Ban Far Outweigh Inconvenience



The Selangor State Government’s ban on polystyrene food packaging and free plastic bags has been in force for over a week, and so far the objections to the ban are as follows:
(i)         That having to buy reusable bags and containers or pay for plastic grocery bags is a financial burden on consumers;
(ii)            That consumers end up having to buy plastic rubbish bags for waste disposal;
(iii)          That the ban will not reduce waste or pollution; and
(iv)         That plastic bags can be safely and cheaply recycled or incinerated and there is therefore no need to ban or restrict their use.

In response to the above arguments, it is pointed out as follows:

(i) Reusable cotton and canvas bags and washable food and beverage containers can last for years and over hundreds of uses. Therefore, investing in good quality reusable items is better for human and environmental health and makes economic sense in the long run. The only reason that ‘free-of-charge’ plastic bags and polystyrene packaging appear affordable to the average citizen is because they are not aware of the cradle-to-grave environmental and economic costs of plastic waste. 

Plastics Kill!

The United States Environmental Protection Agency reports that between 550 billion and a trillion plastic bags are consumed worldwide each year and most of it end up in our oceans.

Worldwatch Institute reports that at least 267 species of marine wildlife are known to have suffered or died from entanglement or ingestion of plastic marine debris. A European Commission study on the impact of litter on North Sea wildlife found that over 90% of the birds examined had plastic in their stomachs.

If consumers had to bear the cost of rescuing and rehabilitating wildlife, mitigating and repairing damage caused by flash floods and clogged waterways and cleaning up plastic litter, plastic packaging would not be free or inexpensive at all.

The reason states and nations have had to impose bans or taxes on disposable plastics is to encourage and expedite behaviour change, which would not take place on its own with sufficient effectiveness if we were to rely on voluntary plastic bag reductions. Governments, retailers and environmental organisations have spent millions on outreach and awareness campaigns with only minimal results. Education and awareness campaigns have little positive impact on an informed but apathetic population, and as such, different strategies are needed. Bans and fees for plastic bags are the catalyst for consumers to reduce their plastic bag usage.

(ii) The most common argument of consumers who claim to ‘need’ free plastic bags is that they need the bags to dispose of household rubbish in, and would now have to pay for rubbish bags. However, most of the plastic bags given out by retailers and vendors are lightweight, single-use plastic bags that are almost never reused. To resolve this problem, the authorities should implement a policy allowing only the distribution of plastic bags above 20 micron (0.02 mm) in thickness and with a minimum capacity of 5 litres, and to charge consumers for it, to ensure that these plastic bags are reused for storage or waste disposal.

Unfortunately, the regulations and policies currently in place seem to mostly encourage the replacement of plastic bags with paper bags, purportedly ‘biodegradable’ bags and cheap non-woven shopping bags. None of these are environmentally sustainable alternatives.

Oxo-degradable, oxo-biodegradable, oxy-degradable, oxy-biodegradable, and degradable plastic bags are merely plastic bags with a chemical additive. This chemical additive breaks the plastic molecular ties and expedites the disintegration of the plastic. Over time, these bags break down into smaller, more toxic petro-polymers, which eventually contaminate our soil and water, and enter the animal and human food chain. Only bags that conform to compostability standards ASTM D6400 or EN 13432 are truly biodegradable.

Paper bags have a high carbon and water footprint, as more water and energy are used in the production of paper bags compared to plastic bags. However, as they are less harmful to wildlife and less toxic to human health, they can be safely used as food packaging. Considering their high water and energy use and low durability, the use of paper bags should be restricted to the sale and serving of food, and not as grocery bags and shopping carrier bags.

Non-woven polypropylene bag

Non-woven shopping bags, referred to colloquially as ‘recycle bags’ although this is grammatically and factually inaccurate, are made of polypropylene and are therefore also plastic although they look and feel like fabric. These should be avoided as they are not durable, break down into plastic fibres easily, and cannot be repaired, recycled or composted. Further, tests by consumer groups found that a large percentage of these bags contain lead.

It is thus reiterated that paper bags, non-woven reusable shopping bags and most brands of ‘biodegradable’ plastic bags do not reduce waste or harm to the environment. The solution to the problem of plastic pollution and waste reduction should incorporate the banning of small, lightweight plastic bags, the distribution only of larger, thicker plastic bags for a small fee, the elimination of ‘greenwashing’ alternatives such as non-woven polypropylene bags, the restriction of the use of paper bags only to food vendors and the implementation of incentives such as rebates and express checkout counters. Long-term solutions include practical initiatives to encourage and increase recycling and composting to reduce household waste and correspondingly reduce the need for rubbish bags.

(iii) In response to the claim that the ban will not significantly reduce plastic pollution, it is pointed out that many countries have banned, taxed or charged for plastic bags, and these measures have been proven successful.

In Denmark, since the introduction of a charge on plastic bags in 1993, the usage of plastic bags has been halved from approximately 800 million bags to 400 million bags, or only 80 bags per person annually. The People’s Republic of China banned lightweight plastic bags and imposed a charge for thicker, bigger bags, and reported a 66% drop in plastic bag usage. CNN Asia reported that China will save 37 million barrels of oil each year due to its ban on free plastic bags.

A plastic bag tax levied in Ireland in 2002 has reportedly led to a 95% reduction in plastic bag litter there. A study by San Jose, California found that a 2011 ban instituted there has led to plastic litter reduction of approximately 89% in the storm drain system, 60% in the creeks and rivers, and 59% in city streets and neighbourhoods. The European Union, Rwanda, Bangladesh, India and many other nations already have plastic bag bans or taxes in place, and these jurisdictions have seen significant gains from less plastic pollution. Considering that plastic bag bans and taxes have been successfully implemented and upheld in both developed and developing countries and jurisdictions, there is no reason why it cannot be workable and effective in Malaysia.

(v)  Despite the claims of the plastics manufacturing industry, most plastics and polystyrene cannot be recycled. Only plastics categorised under codes 1 and 2 are actually separated and collected for recycling. Polystyrene is hardly ever recovered for recycling due to its light weight, low scrap value, prohibitive cleaning and transportation costs and the fact that it is almost always contaminated with food, grease and other matter.

It costs more to recycle a bag than to produce a new one, and as such less than 1% is actually recycled. According to Jared Blumenfeld, Director of San Francisco’s Department of the Environment: “It costs USD4,000 to process and recycle 1 ton of plastic bags, which can then be sold on the commodities market for USD32.”

As polystyrene and plastics are still made from petroleum, a non-renewable and heavily polluting resource, benzene used in the production of polystyrene is a known human carcinogen, and polystyrene and plastics release noxious gases including styrene, xylene and hydrogen bromide when broken down and incinerated, one should seriously question the flippant claim that plastics and polystyrene products could be safely and cheaply incinerated.

Some tips to help consumers remember to bring their reusable shopping bags and takeaway containers with them include the following:

1.      Choose lightweight and portable reusable bags that can be folded neatly and tucked into your handbag or backpack. Make a habit of carrying them with you whenever you leave the house.

2.      Keep your shopping bags in your car if you are in the habit of driving to run errands and go shopping.

3.      Keep your reusable bags by the door that is the most frequently used in your home, where you will be most likely to see and remember them as you are leaving the house or putting on your shoes.

4.      Plan your shopping and include a written reminder in your shopping list.

5.      Purchase or DIY a foldable, lightweight bag that is small enough to hook to your keychain, so you will always have at least one reusable bag with you even when you are not driving or carrying a backpack.

6.      Wash your fabric reusable bags on laundry day (they hardly take up any space) to kill germs and remove dirt and odour, and hang them out to dry. Once they are dry, fold and stow them away immediately in your car, handbag, or backpack so you don't leave them behind on your next shopping trip.

Plastic waste reduction measures should not be seen as a burden or sacrifice, but merely an adjustment. The environmental, societal and human health benefits of reducing plastic usage and waste are numerous and far outweigh the initial inconvenience of having to remember your reusable bags and containers.


Thursday, December 29, 2016

Eco Kids Column: Microadventures for Eco Kids

By Wong Ee Lynn
<wongeelynn@yahoo.com  / gl.mnselangor@yahoo.com>
The school holidays may be over, but this doesn't mean that your outdoor time has to come to an end. Experts agree that children need at least one hour of outdoor time a day to improve their muscle tone, physical coordination, sense of balance and general health and fitness levels. Outdoor time helps children unwind and relax. Unfortunately, for many children living in urban and residential areas, 'outdoor time' consists of structured physical activity such as taekwondo, swimming or tennis lessons. While all sports and physical activities are good for you, unstructured free play outdoors helps to develop your creativity, self-confidence and problem-solving skills. Many children look forward to road trips, camping excursions and visits to national parks and places of natural interest during the school holidays. This does not have to come to an end when the new school semester begins. 'Microadventures' are short adventures in the great outdoors, as opposed to 3-day camping trips in Taman Negara or Tasik Chini. They are usually day trips or may be only hours long. Sometimes they are overnight weekend camping trips that involve camping out on Friday or Saturday nights. What makes a microadventure a microadventure is that they have to be generally unstructured. A sunrise hike up Broga Hill is a microadventure. A birdwatching workshop is less so, because it is structured and involves other people advising you on what to see and do. A football training session is an outdoor physical training session without being a microadventure at all. 

To prepare for a microadventure, you need:
1. To go in a group for safety if the trip involves some degree of risk, or to ensure whoever remains at home (or perhaps relatives, neighbours or close friends) know where you are going and what time you expect to be back;
2. To have fully charged phones or walkie-talkies or some other means of communicating with others in the event of an emergency;
3. A basic First Aid Kit and first aid skills;
4. Sufficient drinking water, and a light snack or two, 
5. Lightweight outdoor emergency equipment, such as a knife for cutting through thorny bushes, fishing lines or bird mist nets with, 
6. A whistle for each member of the group to blow in case you are lost or in case of an emergency,
7. Rubbish bags or a dry sack to carry rubbish out in,
8. A change of clothes in case of bad weather or if you are sleeping out.

Field guides, binoculars, log books, compasses, torchlights and other such items are optional.  

If going on microadventures is new to your family, here are ways you can start small:
1. Set a goal of going on one microadventure each month, if doing it every weekend seems too challenging. 
2. Ensure everyone -- adults and children alike -- get one hour of Outdoor Time each day. Tick it off on a chart, calendar or whiteboard to ensure this is done daily. This can be a nightly walk around the neighbourhood after dinner instead of sitting down in front of the computer, tablet or TV. 
3. If your daily outdoor activity consists of going to the neighbourhood playground, playing in the garden or swimming in the apartment pool, set a goal of going to a different playground or park in a different neighbourhood once or twice a week. Explore different parks and playground equipment. One family wrote a blogpost on how they spent the entire summer exploring and testing out all the slides in all the playgrounds in their district. 
4. Set a Family Goal for the month or quarter (i.e. every 3 months), for example: (i) One place with water; (ii) One place we have never been to before; (iii) One overnight weekend stay; (iv) One item on the MNS Newsletter activities announcement page; and (v) One new way of travelling. 

To make it more meaningful for the family or as a group activity, you can add a volunteering component to your microadventures. For example, you can volunteer for worthy conservation causes, such as the Malaysian Nature Society Urban Community Forest (UCF) plant nursery for the first two hours and then spend the third hour exploring the trails. You can volunteer with the Eats, Roots and Shoots Edible Garden in Petaling Jaya and then spend the next hour hiking the Bukit Gasing Trail. You can help to clean up parks and nature trails.

Here are suggestions on microadventures you can try out in KL and Selangor:1. Explore the KL Forest Eco Park (also known as the Bukit Nanas Forest Reserve) and try to locate the suspension bridge that takes you to the hidden playground. 
2. Explore the trails and streams of Forest Research Institute Malaysia (FRIM), Lembah Kiara Park in TTDI, Bukit Gasing Forest Park, Ketumbar Hill, Broga Hill or Templer's Park. 
3. Go on a long bike ride and picnic at Taman Botani Negara Shah Alam (commonly known as Bukit Cherakah).
4. Take the bus or LRT to a different part of town and walk home without the use of Waze, Google Maps or any other mobile apps. 
5. Go rafting, kayaking or paddleboarding.
6. Explore the playgrounds at Desa Park City, Bukit Jalil Recreation Park, KL Lake Gardens, National Science Centre and Perdana Botanical Gardens.
7. Fly a kite at the Kepong Metropolitan Park or Morib Beach.
8. Bring a brew kit on your next hike and practice starting a fire and boiling some water for tea when you stop to rest. Learn to cook yourself a simple meal outdoors, e.g. instant noodles or toasted sandwiches, once you have mastered the art of starting a fire and keeping a fire going. Remember to put out your fire completely and bring your litter out with you when you are done.
9. Bring a container of plain flour with you. Work in teams of 2-3. The leading team leaves a pattern of flour on rocks and the trail as a trail marker and the 'hunting' team starts off 5-10 minutes later and tries to catch up with the leading team by following the markers. Please do not use bits of paper, crayons, marker pens or non-biodegradable materials as trail markers. 
10. Explore the Kuala Selangor Nature Park and go to Kg. Kuantan after nightfall to see the fireflies along the Selangor River.
11. Go birding, caving or herping (i.e. looking for and spotting reptiles and amphibians) with the Malaysian Nature Society Special Interest Groups. 
12. Go on night hikes and night walks to build up your self-confidence and sense of balance and spatial awareness in the dark. 
13. Have a scavenger hunt on your next hike or park outing. Participants can use their phone cameras to capture photos of things on the list, for example: 'something with wings', 'something with a shell', 'something with more than 6 legs', 'something man-made', 'something that looks like a human face', 'something red' and 'something not native to the area'.
14. If your microadventure consists of going to a playground, urban park or a place to volunteer (e.g. an animal shelter, a community garden, a plant nursery or a homeless assistance centre), add the element of adventure and novelty to it by going there using a different mode of travel (e.g. LRT, bus, on foot, by bike, or on a scooter or skates) or using a different route, and then finish off with an outdoor picnic meal, or a meal at a restaurant you have never been to, particularly if it serves cuisine of a different culture. 
15. Check out the city and community pages of the newspaper or events near you on social media to find out about local events with a community service or environmental objective. For example, environmental documentary screenings, organic markets, art fairs, school fundraisers, treasure hunts, recycling campaigns and community cleanups. Participate in the activities to learn more about these causes and your local community. Make new friends, try new foods and learn new skills and games. 
16. If it is raining but there is no lightning, put on a raincoat and go out in the rain. Watch where the water flows. Are there any birds or animals that go out in the rain?
17. If you live in an urban area, take the LRT, monorail or some other form of public transport to visit a place of historical interest, for example, the old part of Kuala Lumpur, around Masjid Jamek and Central Market. Make notes and sketches about things you observe and how they make you feel. Ride the LRT all the way to the end of the line and back. 
18. Sleep out in your garden, and once you have done this, try out other friends' gardens, the local playground and the school compound, a little further away from your home each time.