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An auxiliary police officer inspecting plastic waste in cargo containers in Port Klang. Malaysia has shipped some 450 metric tonnes of contaminated plastic waste back to the countries of origin — Australia, the US, Canada, Saudi Arabia, Japan, China, Spain and Bangladesh. -- NSTP Archive

RECENTLY, a minister of an African country was quoted as saying, wisely, that “the continuous destruction of the environment is self-inflicted and must be halted”.

“When we destroy the environment, we destroy ourselves. We rely on nature for our critical needs, including medicine, food, air and water for free, yet we show signs of ungratefulness by destroying nature through deforestation, mining, air pollution and improper waste management.”

It is the sacred duty of all to take steps to protect and conserve the environment, he said, by growing trees, using water wisely and disposing of refuse appropriately, especially plastics, so much of which ends up polluting oceans.

Although it is difficult to quantify plastic in the ocean — immense volumes of micro-particles have sunk to the bottom — scientists estimate eight million tonnes (of 300 million tonnes produced annually) end up in oceans each year, adding to the estimated 150 million metric tonnes currently circulating in our oceans.

To put that into perspective, that’s the equivalent of a garbage truck dumping a full load of plastic into the ocean every minute. And that figure is only expected to increase as plastic production and consumption continue.

According to the Ocean Conservancy, in less than 10 years, there will be 250 million metric tonnes in the ocean and, by 2050, more plastic than fish.

Plastic is useful but an estimated 50 per cent of plastic products are used once and thrown away. This is harmful to the ocean environment and its wildlife, impacting nearly 700 marine species, and eventually the humans who consume them.

There is a global crisis in plastic waste. And Malaysia is a major contributor. A 2015 study in  Science Magazine said Malaysia is the eighth worst country worldwide for plastic waste.

The study, which named China, Indonesia and the Philippines as the top polluters, estimated Malaysia produced almost
one million tonnes of mismanaged plastic waste (waste not recycled or properly disposed of) in 2010.

This plastic debacle is over and above other environmental crises in our country, such as the chemical pollution in Sungai Kim Kim in Pasir Gudang, and the unscheduled water cuts last month following the detection of diesel in Sungai Selangor. 

Earlier this year, Energy, Science, Technology, Environment and Climate Change Minister Yeo Bee Yin said there were 25 ‘dead’ rivers in Malaysia, of which 16 were in Johor, five in Selangor, three in Penang and one in Melaka.

These were categorised as highly polluted, or rivers in which aquatic life cannot survive.

Another disconcerting story is the near extinction of our tigers. Malaysia was estimated to have 3,000 tigers in the 1950s but only between 250 and 340 are left after just seven decades.

This column had argued that science has answers to these problems but the will to do something about them is lacking.

Unless we all make a paradigm shift in attitudes as we pursue economic development and social justice, it would be business as usual.

One can take encouragement in news that Sabah is on track to maintain a critically endangered Bornean orangutan population as long as conservation management measures are in place.

A scientific paper from Worldwide Fund (WWF)-Malaysia’s orangutan team, led by Donna Simon, showed that the population of orangutans has remained stable over the past 15 years in the central forest of Sabah. In 2002, the orangutan population was 5,376. In 2017, it was 5,933.

WWF-Malaysia’s survey discovered at least 1,000 orangutans in the Imbak-Kalabakan region of southwestern Sabah.

Simon said: “This survey allows us to advocate for a better land-use plan and identify crucial degraded orangutan habitat to be set aside for restoration and habitat connectivity or for protection.

“This paper shows only a fraction of the overall orangutan conservation work that WWF-Malaysia is doing and we are glad that Sabah is on track to conserve this critically-endangered species.”

Sabah Chief Conservator of Forests Datuk Mashor Mohd Jaini said the state Forestry Department was committed to conserving and protecting Sabah’s wildlife.

“We will continue to manage important wildlife habitat, such as Deramakot and the central Sabah forest reserves complex, in accordance with Sustainable Forest Management practices and in compliance with national and international for certification standards.”

Thus, it is not all doom and gloom. There’s light at the end of the tunnel if only we take the pledge that for sustainable development to work, we must take into account the balanced approach of its three components, namely the economy, society and environment.

The writer is a recipient of the 2015 Merdeka Award and the 2018 Midori Biodiversity Prize

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