This article won the WWF Young Reporters For the Environment 2019 in the 15-18 age category.
by Terese Anne Teoh
SDG 12: Responsible consumption and production.
Singaporeans are growing used to this lifestyle of excessive plastic wastage. The difficulty of communicating the scale of the problem lies in the invisibility of plastic pollution in Singapore.
But its severity cannot be overemphasized. It is trans-boundary in nature: We depend on other countries to manage a portion of our plastic scrap.
It encourages us to consume more than our fair share: we start believing that throwing waste is our right, even if it inflicts long-term damage.
Hence this report aims to understand the public perception of Singapore’s mounting plastic waste issue, and outlines the feasibility of popular suggested solutions.
Fifteen plastic bottles a second. Thirteen plastic bags per person a day. Plastics recycling rate fell from 11% in 2013 to 4% in 2019. The downward trend shows no sign of abating. This article reveals consumer perceptions towards plastics, and proposes solutions for Singapore to tackle excessive plastic waste.
According to a survey of 70 respondents, 85% of Singaporeans believe excessive plastic waste will become a critical issue of national security in the future. 64% of this group worry about Singapore lacking land space for a new landfill. The remaining proportion feel that it needlessly expends scarce oil resources.
Some respondents were unconcerned, highlighting the lack of pollution resulting from plastics here.
The efficacy of the alternative, recycling, has been debatable, especially following China’s ban on imported plastic scrap, which stalled recycling worldwide. Member of Parliament (MP) Mr Louis Ng shared with me that some of Singapore’s recycling was transported to the Middle East; it would not be environmentally friendly to ship recyclables there.
Furthermore, plastics form the dominant fuel source for the incineration process; without plastics, the total energy generated from the waste-to-energy incineration plants would decrease.
Resource Sustainability Act (for Packaging Waste)
From 2020, all companies must report on packaging data and all plans to reduce, reuse or recycle the packaging. This will lay the groundwork for an Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) framework for managing packaging waste including plastics.
Should we make companies responsible for the packaging they produce? At the World Economic Forum in January 2019, green groups like Greenpeace have criticized consumer products companies for their plastic packaging, for “looking to grow in markets that can’t take more plastic”. On the other hand, some consumer products companies have argued that they cannot be blamed for improper plastic waste management.
National Recycling Programme (NRP)
All public waste collectors must provide recycling services to all housing estates in Singapore. Recyclables are sent to the Materials Recovery Facilities (MRF) for sorting before entering recycling facilities.
Proponents of the commingled recycling system say that this increases convenience. A 2014 Sustainability Report by Waste Management (WM) showed that when Madison, Wisconsin switched from a dual-stream recycling to a single-stream one, the amount of recyclables collected soared by 40%.
However, critics say that the risk of contamination runs higher. A 2010 study by WRAP UK found:
“[There are] quality problems from three sources: householders putting the ‘wrong’ materials into the collection, compaction of the waste which breaks glass into small pieces and tends to bind materials together, and the technical and physical capacity of the MRF to separate materials in the volumes delivered to them.”
In a survey that I conducted, 62% of respondents said that the government campaigns in 2019 were ineffective. Two of the most popular ideas are listed.
Making reusables as convenient an option as disposables
A survey conducted by the Ministry of Environment and Water Resources (MEWR) showed that convenience was the top reason for recycling regularly. Similarly, the survey I conducted showed that for those who do not try to reduce their plastic footprint, convenience trumped other reasons. With the convenience-first culture here making reusables on par with disposables in this aspect is necessary in helping Singaporeans make the transition.
Still, these schemes may be ineffective. Last year, the failure of the reusable box sharing initiative, Makanai Box Concept was reported. Hicks suggests that issues included poor marketing, inappropriate location, and that the sharing economy for food containers has yet to be popularized.
Tax on single-use plastic
In October 2018 and August 2019, MPs called for a plastic bag tax.
Dr Amy Khor, Senior Minister of State for the Environment and Water Resources, argued that it might divert businesses to other less eco-friendly alternatives. MEWR’s also research showed paper bags require greater land clearing and water use than plastic bags.
However, there has been no evidence that this would be a move taken by most businesses.
Charging for plastic bags can decrease use. In October 2015, shoppers in Britain were charged five pence for each single-use plastic bag received. In two years, plastic use fell by 86 per cent. When Japanese lifestyle brand Miniso started imposing a ten cents charge per plastic bag, plastic bag use dropped by 75 per cent. Miniso did not switch to other types of single-use bags.
There is ground support for the surcharge. Reports by The Straits Times show most are supportive of a tax. The Fairprice Group CEO also hopes that more corporates and retailers in Singapore would implement taxes by 2020.
Our plastic problem is a daily reminder of the indifference towards the environment. For many, throwing waste in excess remains a right, even if it should create wicked problems – both locally and overseas – that no one knows how to solve. Our plastic overuse spills over to recycling contamination, littering and poor e-waste recycling.
That is the most harmful impact of plastic. A common dependency; a mindless consumption; it has cemented into an individualistic mindset that stifles Singapore’s green movement. To begin afresh, excessive plastic must first be swept out of the way.
Terese heads the Bounce Bags Team at Plastic-Lite Singapore.
- Straits Times (2019, November 24). Singapore’s Plastic Problem: Where would your PET bottles take you? Retrieved from The Straits Times website: https://graphics.straitstimes.com/STI/STIMEDIA/Interactives/2019/11/singapore-plastic-problem-pet-bottles/index.html?shell
- Tan, A. (2018, March 6). Make people pay to use plastic bags, Politics News & Top Stories -. Retrieved from The Straits Times website: https://www.straitstimes.com/politics/analysis-make-people-pay-to-use-plastic-bags
- A Position Paper by the Singapore Environment Council. (2019, July). Consumer Plastic and Plastic Resource Ecosystem in Singapore. Retrieved from: http://sec.org.sg/wp-content/uploads/2019/07/DT_PlasticResourceResearch_28Aug2018-FINAL_with-Addendum-19.pdf
- A survey of 60 respondents was conducted by this reporter. There was a door-to-door collection of results, so that respondents came from different parts of Singapore: West, Central and East. The survey also had a limited circulation via social media. The results of the survey can be found here: https://www.surveylegend.com/s/1y1f
- An interview with MP Louis Ng was conducted by this reporter on 20 January 2020.
- MEWR and NEA joint news release report. (2019, April 29). 60 percent of Singaporean Households Recycle Regularly. Retrieved from NEA website: https://www.nea.gov.sg/media/news/news/index/60-per-cent-of-singaporean-households-recycle-regularly
- Abdullah, Z. (2018, October 2). Parliament: MP calls for carrier bag charges as a way to reduce plastic waste. Retrieved from: https://www.straitstimes.com/politics/parliament-mp-calls-for-carrier-bag-charges-as-a-way-to-reduce-plastic-waste
- Mohan, M. (2019, August 2). MPs reiterate call for plastic bag surcharge; MEWR says focus is on reducing excessive use of all disposables. Retrieved from: https://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/singapore/plastic-bag-surcharge-mewr-mps-reiterate-11785132
- Ministry of Environment and Water Resources and National Environment Agency. (2018) Factsheet on Findings From Life-cycle Assessment Study on Carrier Bags and Food Packaging. Retrieved from: https://www.nea.gov.sg/docs/default-source/media-files/news-releases-docs/cos-2018-media-factsheet-for-lca-study-findings.pdf
- Tan, A. (2017, October 5). 3 billion plastic bags a year? Cut use with mandatory tax. Retrieved from: https://www.straitstimes.com/opinion/3-billion-plastic-bags-a-year-cut-use-with-mandatory-tax