Marine plastics have put our oceans in danger. By 2050, it is estimated the volume of plastic will be greater than that of fish in the sea. Countries in East Asia and the Pacific contribute the most to marine plastic pollution. For World Oceans Day 2019, we are shining a spotlight on innovators working to stem the tide of marine debris in the epicenter of this crisis.
Yasmin Rasyid has worked for over 20 years in environmental management, community development, and social responsibility in Malaysia including community mobilization and sustainability research. She is the founder of Malaysian environmental NGO, EcoKnights.
Tell us about yourself, and your work.
I am a biologist by profession and an environmentalist by passion. The work we [at EcoKnights] are involved in follows the organization’s four core pillars which are: education and awareness, sustainable community development, sustainable waste management and volunteerism and corporate social responsibility. The name ‘EcoKnights’ basically means an army of change, and what we want to do is to empower people to mobilize themselves towards creating a more sustainable future.
In what ways is plastic waste an issue for waterways in Malaysia?
The majority of the waste that we collect from our beach or river clean-ups are plastics. These are choking up riverways and affecting our drainage systems – the drains are fully clogged with 10-20 years of compressed plastics and this indirectly contributes to the flash floods we experience in city areas like Kuala Lumpur. Further, as plastic degrades over time into smaller plastics, this gives way to microplastics to enter the food chain easily through fish and this poses very severe health threats to us in the long run.
When did you first get involved in trying to address these environmental issues, including plastic pollution? What pushed you to start EcoKnights?
As a child, I was very interested in the environment. It led me to study marine biology in university, biotechnology for my Masters, and I am currently working to complete my PhD in sustainability science.
But I also came to realize that no matter how great the work I was involved in from the science and environmental perspective, a missing component was the human element - which is why a lot of the work that EcoKnights does today is community-centric. Ultimately, I don’t want to be speaking in a silo, I want to reach out to different areas to make changes that matter.
At first, I began EcoKnights also as a means to get my daughter more involved in some of these passions of mine. I also saw gaps in how various organizations were addressing the issues related to the environment and sustainability and wanted to find ways to solve them. Little did I know how strongly EcoKnights would come to resonate with many people, especially women, simply because sustainability is so relevant to our daily lives. In the last 15 years that we have been around, EcoKnights has worked to tighten its focus and become more strategic; so we can evoke the change we want to see.
What impact do you hope EcoKnights can achieve?
Ideally, EcoKnights will one day be obsolete because people would be directly responsible for the environment, and actively participate and take charge of their laws and policies to mobilize governments to do the right thing. I see the role of NGOs as temporary mediators. We are here to empower and move communities to be able to be more involved in the future without the need of NGO intervention.
What motivates/inspires you?
People inspire me. EcoKnights essentially runs on a very young team and seeing their energy and what they bring to the team truly motivates me to do more. When I first began EcoKnights, I had a vision that it would eventually empower young people to lead it and it is happening right now as we speak. During our recent Ramadan celebration, I saw for the first time all the stakeholders and partners that my team has gathered and worked with for the past 15 years. Everyone had great things to say about the team and the work that we do and it’s because of this group of young people that EcoKnights is now growing its wings, and going out there to do what it does best.
What kind of work has EcoKnights undertaken, and what has been the impact?
Our waste management programs have received a lot of good traction with the communities we work with. For example, we used to conduct river clean-ups every quarter of the year and now we do it every weekend because we are getting more and more volunteers.
After many years of working on this issue with different groups, it has attracted the attention of local authorities – predominantly in Kuala Lumpur – and in the last two years, we’ve also been receiving calls from local authorities beyond this area. We also work to measure these impacts with data in order to benchmark our work, to see what else needs to be done and to provide credibility to our efforts.
How can people get involved?
The easiest way for people to get involved is to look at our habits and consumption patterns. This is really something that is within our control. We need to be motivated to change these habits and behaviors. Essentially, the challenge to sustainable development is shifting the mindset of the normal person. This gets more difficult, especially if you’re in the city as you grow up in a very ‘disposable’ culture. The whole concept of a circular economy needs to be institutionalized, especially for businesses. Even if 5-10% of the biggest companies in this world can change and abide to the principles of the circular economy concept, I think we will see a more significant impact on the environment and the lives of people. Further, it’s also very easy to volunteer. I feel that that’s always a good stepping point to get yourself engaged, and participating. When you participate, you open up yourself to seeing the world differently.
If there’s one change you’d like to see every person in Malaysia make to reduce plastic pollution, what would it be?
I hope Malaysians can minimize using plastic. If we use less, we throw less, and we pollute less. I don’t think Malaysians are very motivated to make more sustainable choices – we like low-hanging fruits. As such, I believe the responsibility should also lie on businesses to change the behaviors of consumers. Businesses need to find creative and innovative solutions to rely less on plastics for packaging or create incentives for people to recycle, for examples. These are the movers and shakers of change. Malaysia has really good environmental policies in place, but we fail in implementing and enforcing them effectively. So in my opinion, having businesses take up the mantle of sustainability will be very powerful and impactful for the environment.