Plastic-free stores mushroom in Malaysia

Environmentally conscious consumers in Malaysia are becoming spoilt for choice, as plastic-free stores pop up all over the capital. But are zero waste shops sustainable businesses?

For a while, Malaysia had just one zero waste store. It was run by a French expatriate who moved to Kuala Lumpur three years ago. But since May this year, another five have opened up in rapid succession, and a few more are in the works.

These chic stores, which sell daily essentials such as food, detergent and toiletries, encourage customers to bring their own containers, buy only as much as they need, and do not give out single-use disposable packaging. They also work with suppliers to avoid single-use packaging.

Their rapid growth spurt is a response to the growing customer demand in Malaysia for sustainable shopping as the local zero waste movement gathers momentum on the back of the global backlash against disposable plastics.

Interest in waste reduction spiked after Malaysia began clamping down on illegal plastic recycling plants and imports of plastic waste which were diverted here after China clamped down on waste imports. Malaysia has also ramped up its campaign against disposables such as plastic bags and straws.

Malaysia’s Energy, Technology, Science, Climate Change and Environment Minister, Yeo Bee Yin recently announced that Malaysia has frozen licences for plastic waste recycling plants, and banned imports of plastic waste. She also said Malaysia will abolish single-use plastics by 2030, beginning with the introduction of a charge for plastic bags. Several states in Malaysia have already introduced a charge for plastic bags on certain days of the week.

“We have been talking about plastic waste for so long, and the media is finally talking about it,” says Claire Sancelot, the Frenchwoman who pioneered Malaysia’s first zero waste shop, The Hive Bulk Foods, in 2015, when she moved to Malaysia’s capital with her Malaysian husband.

The Hive helped build up a base of customers who are not averse to buying products without packaging or a big brand name attached to it, and its success has charted a path for more zero waste stores in Malaysia.

Owned by Malaysians, these new stores follow a similar model to The Hive but have a more Malaysian flavour. As a pioneer, The Hive focused on products that met the needs of expatriates who are more familiar with the concept, but the newer stores carry more Malaysian food essentials such as curry powder. They are also located in neighbourhoods with a predominantly Malaysian population.