How long does it take for you to finish a 500ml bottle of mineral water? Maybe 4 seconds (a writer’s personal record), or maybe you’re the kind to take a sip, throw the bottle to the back seat of your car along with all the others and forget all about them for the next six months or so (also a writer’s personal record). Either way, unless it’s being thrown at you while you’re singing on stage…
…you probably don’t pay much attention to the humble plastic bottle. But you probably should. A plastic bottle is more than just a temporary container for your drink. Much, much more.
“Am I just a plastic bottle to you? Drink drink then throw me away?!” – that ex bf/gf you treated like… well, a plastic bottle.
Unlike your human ex(es), plastic bottles aren’t so vocal about how you treat them. However, they can still mess you up pretty badly, depending on how they move on after the breakup. Since you can’t really stalk their socmed profiles to find out what they’re up to, we’ll be exploring what can happen to the plastic bottles you discard, in the form of
a song breakup analogies.
1. Moving on, getting a makeover and starting a new life
Meet Anita Bottleface. After you dumped her, for a while she had ice cream for every meal and took long, lonely walks by the beach in her sweatpants. During one of her walks, she met another guy who convinced her that she’s a strong, independent plastic bottle who’s way too gorgeous to be hung up over some man. Filled with renewed conviction, Alice went for a makeover and came out a different person, sought after by all the boys in her yard.
In case you haven’t figured out already, Anita got thrown away and recycled. Even if you don’t specifically throw Anita into a recycling bin, there’s a chance that scavengers (people who look for recyclables in trash and sell them for money) or waste collectors might pick her out from your trash, and send them over to recycling centers. Here’s a complicated-ish chart on what happens to recyclables in Malaysia.
Unfortunately, the chances of that happening is pretty low. A 2006 report estimated that only around 4 to 7% of local plastics get recycled in Malaysia. Recycling plastics typically involve 5 steps:
- Collecting the plastic waste, which may come from recycling centers or scavenged from landfills or other places,
- Manually separating them according to their chemical composition,
- Chipping them, where they are inserted into a machine that shreds them into teeny tiny pieces,
- Washing them to remove labels and other impurities, and finally
- Pelletizing them, that is turning them into small pellets of resin that can be formed into new products.
We have problems regarding the first two steps, which involves getting the plastic trash to the recycling factories in the first place. Plastic waste can be quite light, so they’re comparatively worthless for scavengers to sell (it’s sold by kgs). Also, there are, like, hundreds of different kinds of plastics out there, and not all of them can be recycled or are worth recycling. Plastics are often mixed with other kinds of trash, and picking them out and separating them can be very labor intensive. Basically it’s quite a leceh and costly affair la.
Despite all that, recycling is still a pretty good solution, for reasons that will become apparent later on in this article. Plastic bottles like Anita are made of polyethylene terephtalate (PET), so she could have a second life as part of a sleeping bag, jacket, carpet, or even the sails on a ship. Good for you, Anita.
2. Holing up in a dump and fading away to nothingness
This is Betty Plasticbutt. Like Alice, she also survived on ice cream and took lonely walks, but nobody came along to cheer her up. She grew old, bitter and depressed, choosing to hide away from the world. Little by little, she fades away into nothing.
So what happens if a plastic bottle didn’t get sorted out or get picked up by scavengers? They will mostly be sent to landfills, which in Malaysia are commonly open-air pits where garbage is left to rot. But plastic bottles like Betty do not rot. They just break down into smaller and smaller pieces, called microplastics, either by abrasion or exposure to UV rays from the sun.
In landfills, where plastics can just stay unmoving for years and get buried underneath other trash, out of the sun’s reach, this can take a very, very long time. They take up space, and with the vigorous rate we’re making plastic waste and not recycling enough of them, we might soon run out of places to dump our trash. As of 2007, Malaysia has 291 landfill sites, but almost half of them were already closed. It’s really hard to find new sites to turn into landfills, too, as nearby residents and community leaders generally don’t appreciate having a rubbish dump near their homes.
But let’s forget that for a while, and go back to the microplastics part…
3. Getting lost, and finding a more toxic version of you
Mark Polyethylene got dumped so suddenly that he almost went off the edge. To take his mind off things, he went off wandering, but he can’t stop thinking of all the ways he might have messed up. But he finally realized that it’s not his fault he was thrown away like common trash. Love is a farce, and people are selfish. He eventually returned, but in a different form. Now you can be together… forever.
This is what happens when you didn’t even bother throwing your bottle into a proper can, and nobody picks them up. Plastic bottles like Mark could eventually get washed away by the rain or whatever into a drain or a river, and eventually into the ocean. Remember what breaks plastic bottles into microplastics? Abrasion and sunlight, and as plastic bottles floats on the ocean’s waves, the process gets much faster.
It was estimated that Malaysians throw 370kgs of plastic waste into the sea annually, and while it may seem like a smol amount, remember that although plastics may get smaller and smaller, they never really go away. And we’re not the only ones throwing into the sea. Malaysia is actually ranked the 8th worst sea plastic polluter in 2015, and we were outdone by our neighbors: China, Indonesia, Vietnam, the Philippines and Thailand. So you can just imagine how much plastic is in our waters.
These tiny pieces of plastic can get into the bodies of marine animals, especially shellfish, and when we eat them, the plastics can get into us as well. And still the plastics remain. A pilot study done very recently (Oct 2018) found tiny bits of plastic in the… poop… of the respondents. While it’s not yet confirmed where exactly the plastic comes from or whether it will be harmful to human health, it had been linked to the mismanagement of plastic waste.
4. [Bonus] Falling in love all over again
“It’s over. Our marriage is failing. It’s been weeks since we’ve talked to each other,” said Jon Container as he lay under the bed where you threw him. But just as he was thinking of packing up and wandering off, a hand reached under the bed and pulled him out. It was you! You pulled out a knife and sliced off his head, then stuck your pencils and pens in him. Jon didn’t mind. He was still useful… but for how much longer?
You can probably guess, but this scenario involves not throwing away your plastic bottle and re-using them. Whether it’s by refilling it with water or modifying them into other things (like pencil holders or vases) or keeping it around simply to separate egg yolks…
…these alternatives are called upcycling, or creative reuse. But there are limits to how long you can keep re-using the same bottle, and when the time comes, Jon will have to go through the other possible endings as well. It’s just a delayed breakup, after all.
There are other ways people can handle their plastic bottles that we didn’t cover, like burning or burying them, but those come with their side effects as well. Burning plastics can release harmful chemicals into the air if not done right, and as plastics don’t really rot, burying them is pretty much the same as the landfill problem earlier. So by now you might have noticed that…
Our relationship with plastics rarely end well for both sides
Perhaps the scariest thing about plastics is that unlike banana peels or last night’s takeout, even if you throw them away, they never really go away. You may use a water bottle for a few minutes, but the plastic from that bottle will probably still be around long after your great-grandchildren finally manage to pay off their PTPTNs.
Since plastic entered mass production in the 1950s, a total of 8.3 billion metric tons of them have been created globally. 6.3 billion metric tons have become waste, and from that, only 12% have been incinerated, and only 9% have been recycled. This would mean that roughly 5 billion tons of plastic trash are still around in the world’s landfills and oceans. If you have a hard time grasping how much trash that is, that’s 1,000 times heavier than all the blue whales in the world’s oceans, using the most optimistic estimates (25,000 whales, each weighing 200 tons).
And the number is still rapidly growing. In KL alone, an estimated 420 tons of plastic waste are made each day. That’s roughly 12,600 tons a month, and 151,200 tons a year. And KL isn’t even the most populated area by far in Malaysia (it’s the 7th). Based on our discussions so far, the only sorta-happy ending when it comes to plastic is recycling, but as we mentioned earlier less than 7% of plastics get recycled each year.
The situation can be improved. As it turns out, the majority of trash in Malaysia comes from households instead of industries. Bearing in mind the major obstacles in recycling plastics are collecting and separating them, common people like us can really make a difference by separating our trash instead of dumping it all in one bin. You can find a guide to do that here, but what else can be done?
Thankfully, some businesses are doing something about it
Over the years, several companies have shown their concern for the plastic problem, and rolled out initiatives of their own to combat it. Since 2011, IKEA no longer offer single-use plastic bags, instead selling their now iconic blue bags through their Bag for Life program. The profits from the bags’ sales are channeled to the Malaysian Nature Society (MNS) to support their conservation activities.
Tesco Malaysia, on the other hand, is encouraging their customers to reuse their plastic bags through their recent Unforgettable Bag program, where they sell special plastic bags featuring sea animals with unique barcodes on them at 50 sen each. If you bring it to use the next time you shop at Tesco, you’ll be able to get a 20 sen rebate on your next purchase, up to a maximum of 40 sen rebate per transaction.
Other businesses that deal with food have also taken steps to reduce their plastic. Some McDonalds outlets no longer give out plastic straws, and you won’t receive straws for your McDelivery unless you ask for it specifically. Golden Screen Cinemas is also trying to reduce their customer’s use of single-use plastics by offering reusable tote bags and collectible popcorn and drink containers, as well as providing recycling bins at their outlets.
Actually we can go on and on with the examples, but the point is that these companies are trying something that may be more effective than recycling: reducing the amount of plastic waste that goes into the plastic cycle. After all, the less plastic you use, the less you’ll have to throw away, right? The Internet is rife with tips to do just that, so you might want to check them out and stop breaking the hearts of plastic bottles. Form a meaningful relationship with one today.