PETALING JAYA - The abundant use of plastic packaging for delivery services must be looked into, especially with the spike in online delivery services during the movement control order, say environmental activists.
Pertubuhan Pelindung Khazanah Alam Malaysia president Puan Sri Shariffa Sabrina Syed Akil said online delivery services had grown rapidly, increasing the demand for plastic.
"Getting meals has become more convenient as it is literally at your fingertips. However, it involves a lot of single-use plastic packaging, which of course is damaging to the environment as most end up in rivers and oceans.
"As companies that profit from such activities, they have a responsibility to ensure that their activities are sustainable and do not harm the environment, " she said.
She added companies could use biodegradable material for their packaging such as sugarcane fibre.
"This has already been done for smaller items such as straws. That being said, some food delivery services have taken the initiative to reduce plastic by offering users the option to refuse plastic cutlery.
"This may be a tiny effort on a larger scale, but it plays a vital role in reducing single-use plastic, " she said.
Shariffa Sabrina urged consumers to be more environmentally-conscious when placing online orders.
"Many online stores now have an option for customers to collect their items themselves.
"Consumers can choose online businesses that use eco-friendly packaging and also push businesses to change from plastic packaging to better alternatives, " she said.
Global Environment Centre river care programme manager Dr K. Kalithasan said there were many alternative material available for packaging.
"There are plant or organic-based packaging or wrapping. However, even this does not tackle the root cause of the waste.
"The ideal solution is for e-commerce companies to adopt sustainable or life cycle assessment (LCA) packaging and educate their customers and vendors on minimising plastic packaging, " he said.
An LCA is a technique to evaluate the environmental impact of a commercial product during all its life-cycle stages.
He said companies should invest in producing their own sustainable packaging and can even collect back the packaging when the products are delivered to ensure they are sustainably disposed of.
"Companies should think about the long term impact and benefits. Sustainable materials may cost higher at initial stages, but over time, it has a lower environmental impact and economic cost, " Dr Kalithasan said.
"The policymakers could also provide additional incentives or tax rebates for companies that want to adopt LCA."
Aroe Ajoeni, a youth environmentalist from Klima Action Malaysia, said the no-plastic movement was an important one to push for. "Plastic is cheap to produce, it's waterproof and it makes it safer to deliver items. That's why retailers use it to ship items.
"However, policymakers and civil society should look at this as a climate change issue, starting from the production of a product until its disposal, " she said.
According to a World Cleanup Day 2019 audit, 10,370 littered pieces of plastic take-out containers were picked up during a mass cleanup across 90 locations in the country last year.Former SWCorp deputy chief executive officer (technical) Dr Mohd Pauze Mohamad Taha had said in 2019 that plastic made up about 20 per cent of total waste.
While not all companies have switched entirely to being plastic-free, some have undertaken measures to reduce plastic usage.
Grab Malaysia country head Sean Goh said the company was taking measures towards improving the environmental sustainability of their services and customers responded positively.
"The year 2020 will continue to see us actively working with our restaurant-partners to identify more eco-friendly packaging options. Currently, some 85 per cent of our food orders have opted for the 'no-cutlery' toggle on our app.
"For every order which opted for no plastic cutlery, 10 sen (S$0.03) will be channelled towards a Green Fund which will support our restaurant partners in becoming eco-friendlier businesses, " he said in a statement to The Star.
He added that GrabFood also partnered with the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) in which it pledged towards WWF's vision of having no plastic in nature by 2030.
A representative of a popular hangout for youths in Kuala Lumpur said her restaurant had been providing biodegradable paper straws, as well as packing deliveries in paper containers and bags.
"We are also making strides in sourcing sustainable and local ingredients, " she said.
Malaysian Muslim Restaurant Owners Association president Datuk Jawahar Ali Taib Khan said the move to eliminate single-use plastic at eateries would take time.
"You cannot do everything in one shot. But at least we are trying to adjust to the environmentally-friendly concept, " he said.
Plastic pollution has been in the spotlight in recent years, especially after Greenpeace Malaysia reported in 2018 that Malaysia "has become the world's rubbish bin".
Countries such as the United States, Japan and Britain had been exporting plastic waste to Malaysia, while illegal plastic waste recycling factories mushroomed in the country.
WWF had also reported in February that Malaysians are the biggest individual consumers of plastic packaging.