by Chrystal Lee
As we ushered in the new year – and the new decade – 2020 held much promise. October 2018 saw the launch of the New Plastics Economy Global Commitment, with more than 400 organisations committing to reduce the use of virgin plastic, introduce reuse pilot projects and use recycled plastic in packaging. Governments like Rwanda, the UK and Chile also implemented policies to further the cause.
Plastic pollution skyrockets
Then COVID-19 hit. The world saw an unprecedented demand for plastics in the fight against the coronavirus. Globally, healthcare workers donned all manners of personal protective equipment (PPE). No matter the regulation, they shared one thing in common: plastics – from polypropylene in N-95 masks, polyethylene in Tyvek protective suits, to PET in medical face shields. Outside of hospitals and isolation facilities, individuals armed themselves with plastics in the form of face masks and hand sanitizers. Plastics emerged as essential in the face of public health.
In Singapore, the circuit breaker’s restrictions on dining in saw a surge in takeaway and delivery orders. Based on an online survey conducted by National University of Singapore alumni, estimates place a 20% rise in takeaway orders per week during the circuit breaker and 73% increase in delivered meals. For our environment, this meant an additional 1,334 tons of disposable forks, spoons and containers, equivalent to the weight of 92 double-decker buses. Singapore is not alone. According to the Thailand Environment Institute, waste increased from 1,500 tons to 6,300 tons per day, attributed largely to soaring home deliveries of food. Now imagine this replicated globally in cities with similar lockdown measures.
But even as cities emerge from lockdowns, plastics seem here to stay. Although dining in is now allowed, major chains like Starbucks continue using disposable cups (where lids are made of plastic) instead of mugs. Overseas, Starbucks and other chains such as Pacific Coffee have suspended their bring-your-own-mug programmes for health reasons.
Amidst humanity’s valiant fight against the pandemic, it seems like another global crisis has crept up on us: the global plastic waste management crisis. Much of this medical waste is plastic waste, from the same PPE and hand sanitizers. China’s Ministry of Ecology and Environment estimates that hospitals in Wuhan produced more than 240 tons of medical waste daily at the peak of the outbreak, compared to the usual 40 tons. In the United States, it was predicted there could be an entire year’s worth of medical waste in just two months because of COVID-19.
Take care of vulnerable communities while cleaning up
Our founder Aarti Giri shared with CGTN about the renewed importance of waste management amidst the pandemic, particularly in developing nations with poorer waste management infrastructure. Such countries, which may already be struggling with combating COVID-19, face additional health and economic risks given that plastic waste is managed by the informal sector. Indonesia’s 3.7 million waste-pickers, who collect 1 million tonnes of plastic waste annually, are vulnerable to the contaminated materials they handle. Yet their livelihoods hang in the balance – they could lose daily earnings when governments order work stoppages and implement lockdowns.
The effects of poor plastic waste management are already being felt, as pandemic plastics have found their way into our oceans as marine debris. As early as February, Hong-Kong based environmental NGO OceansAsia found dozens of disposable masks in the city’s uninhabited Soko Islands. After cleaning up 70 masks, they returned one week later only to find another 30 more. Across the globe, divers from the French non-profit Opération Mer Propre found dozens of gloves, masks and bottles of hand sanitiser in the Mediterranean, mixed in with the usual litter of disposable cups and aluminium cans.
Don’t see pollution? Don’t get complacent
While Singapore has implemented plastic waste management systems through our waste-to-energy plants and Semakau landfill, we should by no means be complacent. A land-strapped nation, Singapore has finite space to house its trash. Semakau was intended to meet Singapore’s dumping needs until as late as 2045, but the Ministry of Environment and Water Resources has estimated that Semakau could fill a decade earlier due to the rapidly growing rate of disposable products. Meeting the limits of Semakau could pose a national security threat, owing to potential tensions with neighbouring countries over land use.
To avoid such a situation, Singapore could extend Semakau’s lifespan by slowing down our trash generation. This buys time for us to develop more advanced waste management technologies to deal with our trash cleanly. For example, the Micro Auto Gasification System (MAGS) at Gardens by the Bay attests to the possibilities of transforming all kinds of domestic waste (except e-waste) into something useful, like biochar.
As cities emerge from lockdowns and adjust to the new normal, there is a need to renew our green commitments amidst shift in priorities.
What the government can do
Fix a timeline
In Singapore, the government’s plans to require select businesses and retailers to report on plastics usage and submit plans to reduce or recycle plastics have been put on hold due to COVID-19 disruptions. There is a need for Singapore to draw up – and commit – to a timeline as we take incremental steps to phase out disposable plastics. Otherwise, we may risk following in the footsteps of Hong Kong, which recently abandoned a waste disposal charge bill that was proposed more than a decade ago. During this time, waste disposed of by each Hongkonger reportedly rose by 20% from 2013-2018 – a worrying trend for a country with rapidly shrinking landfill sites.
Governmental efforts can further be supported by aid agencies, development banks and NGOs, especially in developing nations. In Khon Kaen Province, Thailand, waste management practices see the cooperation of the private sector, temple and community leaders, education institutes such as the Khon Kaen University, and other governmental agencies. It truly takes a village.
Some are optimistic, believing that environmental emphasis on plastic pollution will eventually return to the fore after the COVID-19 crisis is under control. Such optimism may be well-founded – in Singapore, the government has plans to rally its citizens from September 2020 to March 2021 to rethink ways to reduce excessive use of disposable waste. Around the world, innovative companies see COVID-19 as a window of opportunity for innovation, from plastic-free PPE to repurposing takeaway plastics into filament for 3D-printed PPE. Private sector investors have also come onboard, with Singapore-based Circulate Capital committing investments into companies that prevent ocean plastic.
What you can do
For starters, we can change our personal habits with simple actions. Many have begun using reusable masks instead of disposable ones. Dispose of face masks correctly. Opt out of disposable cutlery on food delivery platforms or when ordering takeout. Repurpose single-use containers into storage boxes.
Let’s translate optimism into reality.
Chrystal currently works with local and international startups in Enterprise Singapore to support their innovation and internationalisation journey. Trained in law, she is striving to advance environmental and climate change laws in Singapore, in the belief that Singapore can be a small but shining beacon of sustainability in our corner of the world.