This summer I visited my friend Shahirah who organizes beach cleanups in Malaysia. I decided to do an interview with her to raise awareness of plastic pollution and to show that we can all do something against it.
Me: Let us start with a general question. Why is there so much plastic waste in Malaysia?
Shahirah: I think that the waste epidemic does not only affect Malaysia, but this is a global issue. Every country struggles with the same waste management issue. In Malaysia, local people are not aware of the importance of recycling and domestic waste segregation. As a developing country, we have a mission. Until 2020, Malaysia focuses on its economic development, especially in the industrial sector. We want to increase the production of goods and export them locally, and internationally. Hereby, plastic is a cheap alternative, it is durable and cost-effective.
Me: What happens with the plastic waste in the ocean?
Shahirah: Plastic made from chemicals are highly resistant. It is estimated that it will take at least 500 years until it will biodegrade in the ocean. When it ends up there, it will break into small microplastic particles (size: <5mm ) with the help of salt water and sun. This micro plastic becomes for the wildlife, including the fish that we eat. Besides that, plastic can be found inside turtles or dolphins. In the year 2018 only, there are cases of dead sperm whales with plastic trash inside their stomachs. We know for sure that the wildlife in the ocean has no idea what plastic is and how it endangers their ecosystem. Plastic waste as well increases the water temperature. When it becomes very high, it will bleach coral reefs, which are crucial for the entire ecosystem.
Me: These problems are very serious. You organize beach cleanups in Malaysia. When and why did you start?
Shahirah: Honestly, I started in 2018, one day after my birthday in February. A Costa Rican woman named Carolina Sevilla inspired me. She initiated the #5minutesbeachcleanup hashtag, which is for me a very simple, but good idea to help to save the ocean. My life principle is “action speaks louder than words”, I’ve always had this idea in my mind that I must “do something” rather than just not doing anything. I work in the humanitarian sector and its politics sometimes can be overwhelming. I wondered, why is doing good so hard nowadays? It seems as if every person wants to feel superior in the name of humanity. This is bullshit! Then I started to realize, I cannot do great things, but I can do small things in a great way, and I started to organize beach cleanups. It is a very small action, but it could have a huge impact if 7.7 billion people in the world, including me, do it. With humility, I started this action together with my friend Amelie Lazarus, who is a photographer. I realized within myself, I am responsible as a human being to help to protect the ocean and the world from this destruction.
Me: Your campaign is called “plogginglah”. What does it mean?
Shahirah: It was originated from the word “plogging”. It is a movement that started in Sweden, which integrates two activities, pick up trash and go jogging. I named my campaign plogginglah because “lah” is a suffix used by Malaysians in our daily conversations in English, Malay, Tamil, and Chinese. “Lah” also can indicate excitement in a conversation. It is a way to localize the term plogging. It should raise awareness of the trash problem and encourage a healthy lifestyle at the same time in our country. In the year 2018 as well, we Malaysians just achieved a new level as a better nation. We call it “Malaysia Baru”. I am very inspired by this new phase and consciously started to make small changes, such as educating my people on our plastic waste problem and to encourage them to clean the beach. I hope this campaign can be a mind-opener for all Malaysians and change our attitude towards trash or plastic waste in the long run.
Me: What kind of people join you? And where do you do your cleanups?
Shahirah: Currently, I focus on the beach. I call this activity “beach plogging” and it mostly takes place on the west coast of Peninsular Malaysia. All kinds of people can join, there are no restrictions at the moment. Even a two years old little girl has joined us.
Me: How can interested people join you?
Shahirah: Anyone can follow us on Instagram and Facebook. Our group is called “Plogginglah”. I share information, such as our events and inspiring messages, on Instagram. Our Facebook group is for like-minded people, especially Malaysians, to share their experiences with cleanups.
Me: What do you recommend people who want to organize beach cleanups?
Shahirah: Start small, even on your own. You can use reusable gloves and a reusable trash bag.
Me: You are following a zero-waste lifestyle in your private life. What kind of changes did you make?
Shahirah: I started to make my own deodorant and toothpaste. I also switched to a bamboo toothbrush.
Me: What are the first steps that people can do to reduce plastic waste?
Shahirah: Start simple. For example, take reusable items with you, such as a food container, a water bottle,
utensils and a straw. Malaysians like to “tapaw”, they go to food stalls or restaurants to buy take-away food. Start by asking to put your food in your reusable containers. It helps to reduce plastic packaging.
Me: It is a good and simple action. Who inspires you, and which people are worth to follow online?
Shahirah: Carolina Sevilla, the founder of #5minutebeachcleanup. And all other people who take action and clean the beaches. For me, they are all very inspiring.
Me: Thank you, Shahirah. You are very inspiring, too!
- Plogginglah on Instagram
How are Asian countries tackling plastic pollution?, by Lainey Loh