Too hard to let go

In the midst of learning to live with the new normal of COVID-19 pandemic, the increase of individuals choosing to stay home as well as the default mode of working from home has resulted in the rise in groceries shopping, food takeaways, and deliveries in Singapore. This has inevitably resulted in the tremendous increase in the use of plastic bags, on top of the already high consumption in the past. A news article by Channel News Asia on 10 May 2021 reported that Singapore uses about 2.5 billion plastic bags a year. Another study estimated that approximately 2 million plastic bags are being used per day from supermarkets alone. For a long time, people have gotten used to plastic bags as a “free and quick” solution to suit daily lifestyles, expecting to have plastic carriers for every purchase. Deemed as a free resource, few people see the need to reject unnecessary plastic bags and have taken them for granted in spite of their dire environmental consequences. It is not uncommon for shoppers take the liberty of using a few extra bags to “double bag” heavier items. The overdependence on plastic bags for packaging and convenience has shaped our consumer patterns and social behaviours that have in turn contributed significantly to the plastic waste problem in Singapore.

Figure 1. Picture of a trolley of plastic bags with groceries from a supermarket in Singapore (Unscrambled, 2019)

The environmental impacts of plastic bags

Plastic itself is not inherently bad. When it was firstly introduced, plastic was seen as a revolutionary material that is light, durable, and waterproof. These features likely explain why people have been having a hard time breaking away from it. However, our reliance on plastic has also resulted in a plethora of environmental and health problems to many cities and countries around the world. According to a brief issued by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), out of approximately 300 million tons of plastics waste produced each year, almost 8 million tons ended up in the oceans as marine litters and microplastics that endanger marine life and ecosystems. Plastic products take decades, or even centuries, to biodegrade. From an urban perspective, plastic bag has also become one of the major items in the waste collection streams that has resulted in many detrimental effects in the urban environment, including animal choking, pollution, blockage of channels, drains, rivers, and streams. Inappropriate management of plastic bags can even lead to serious environmental deterioration of agricultural lands, threatening food production, food supply chain, and even human health.

In Singapore, the incineration of municipal waste to convert waste into energy has significantly reduced land contamination and many other environmental impacts. The National Environment Agency (NEA) of Singapore ensures that all incinerators meet specific air emission standards with constant monitoring and reporting. As a highly urbanised and dense nation, the waste management system of Singapore has been designed to achieve maximum efficiency and hygiene. Nevertheless, irresponsible dumping and littering still occur in coastal parks, Nature Reserves, and residential estates, threatening the survival of terrestrial and marine wildlife in the area. Plastics that end up in oceans will also pollute our waters with micro-plastics, affecting our fisheries, food supply, and our health.

Figure 2. Singapore’s coasts littered with plastic trash (Source: TEMBUSU Asia)

With our only remaining landfill, Pulau Semakau, running out of space, there is also an urgent need to reduce waste production as well as increase our nation’s available landfill space. More sustainable solutions will be needed to handle the waste issue effectively.

 

Singapore’s initiatives towards the reduction of plastic bags usage

Compared to many countries around the world that have entirely banned the use of plastic bags, Singapore has taken the route of creating awareness and initiatives to discourage its use and facilitate a mindset change. Over the years, Singapore has built upon its efficient waste management system to introduce new policies and incentives to tackle waste issues and reduce single-use plastic usage. Educational programs have also been introduced at various levels to encourage the use of recyclable and reusable bags. Some of the ongoing strategies include:

  1. Implementing charges to plastic bags usage

With the increasing need to reduce plastic bags usage, both international and local supermarkets and retailers have begun to implement charges to every bag used. Since 2019, NTUC FairPrice has begun charging a fee of 20 cents at 7 outlets initially and further expanded to 25 more till Nov 2021.  International retailers such as IKEA have stopped the use of plastic bags for packaging and encourage shoppers to use their own bags or pay a dollar for a piece of recycled bag instead. The government will also be conducting a public consultation on the charging model and aims to impose a charge for all types of single-use carrier bags at all supermarkets in the future.

Figure 3. Ikea’s campaign for reusable bags in Singapore (IKEA, n.d.)

 

  1. Introducing policies and regulatory compliance to control excessive usage

Under the Resource Sustainability Act (RSA) of Singapore, it is compulsory for producers whose annual earnings exceed $10 million to report their packaging waste. Producers of packaged products (e.g., brand owners, manufacturers, importers, and retailers) are required to submit their packaging data and 3R plans to NEA. Companies have to provide information on the packaging introduced into the Singapore market according to the type of packaging material (e.g., plastic, paper, metal, glass), packaging form (e.g., carrier bags, bottles), and their corresponding weights. Once the Extended Producers Responsibility (EPR) to manage packaging waste kicks off by 2025, more companies will enhance their efforts in reducing plastic bags consumption as part of the 3R plans submission and/or through other responsible and sustainable actions.

  1. Raising awareness through effective campaigns and initiatives

Nationwide targeted campaigns and initiatives have been executed to raise consumer awareness of the environmental impacts of plastic waste and reduce single use plastics. In recent years, many environmental groups have also started their own campaigns and initiatives to encourage the use of recyclable bags for packaging of food and shopping items. The Bring Your Own (BYO) campaign has attracted the participation of more than 400 retail outlets to provide incentives to customers who bring their own reusable bags. This campaign has saved approximately two million pieces of plastic disposables and packaging. Leveraging on the success of BYO, the NEA supported the Zero Waste SG with the Partnership Fund to further develop the campaign in 2019 into Bring Your Own Bag (BYOB) to focus on reducing disposable plastic bag usage. Corporate firms can also encourage their staff to bring their own food containers as part of company culture and sustainability practices.

Figure 4. Picture of BYOB campaign by Zero Waste SG (NEA, 2020)

  1. Closing the plastic loop

From a linear to a circular economy approach, Singapore has been looking at ways to close the plastic loop by applying advanced technologies to turn plastic waste into valuable resources. This is done through engaging different stakeholders in various industry sectors to understand the needs and optimise the opportunities to keep plastic waste within a closed loop. Chemical recycling has been widely explored and studied to harness new growth as a petrochemical hub. Other decentralised smaller-scale technologies and prototypes are also being explored by supporting experimentation and test-bedding to bridge the gap between laboratory research and commercial deployment. The exploration of end treatment technologies to deal with plastic waste must continue to pave new ways for an effective waste management in Singapore.

Our recommendation and the way forward

While it may not entirely feasible to ban plastic bag usage in Singapore today, our increasing dependence and high consumption have raised significant concerns. There is a need to minimise plastic bag usage by changing our daily habits. In a study conducted by the Singapore Environment Council in 2018, most families keep plastic bags at home for use or reuse for various purposes, the highest being for dumping of general waste and for carrying wet items and dirty laundry. This finding shows that the high-rise living condition and waste collection systems have indirectly shaped our need for using plastic bags for various household purposes. While such usage does help in improving hygiene and mitigating pest issues, viable alternatives that can reduce the reliance on plastic bags need to be considered.

Facilitating a mindset change

We strongly believe that education is essential and critical for behavioural improvement. Through the effective education on the environmental and health expense of single-use plastics, we will be able to see not only immediate results but also long-term impacts for generations to come. Other actions that can limit the impacts of plastic bags on the environment include partaking in neighbourhood clean-ups, recycling household waste, avoiding littering and illegal dumping, and switching to eco-friendly alternatives. In offices and workplaces, companies can incorporate such efforts into corporate social responsibility (CSR) actions by encouraging staff to bring their own reusable cups and containers for takeaway meals. In the retail sectors such as supermarkets, cashiers should discourage shoppers from using excessive plastic bags and possibly limit the number of bags given per basket or trolley. In recent years, more zero waste shops have been set up to encourage zero waste living and educating consumers on the need to reduce packaging waste.

Figure 5. Ailse of Scoops Wholefoods, a zero-packaging low-waste wholefoods retailer (Timeout, 2020)

 

Enhancing the current incentives while implementing charges

Instead of merely charging for plastic bags, retailers and supermarkets can consider ways to incentivise consumers by increasing the attractiveness of rebates given for using reusable bags. The current 10–20¢ charge per plastic bag may be too small to deter people from breaking out of their habit of using of plastic bags. Imposing strict fees and penalties like plastic bag charges may not be the most effective method to convince people of the need to change. Other potentially effective measures to encourage the shift away from plastic bags include the development of a point collection system that rewards consumers for bringing their own reusable bags. These points can then be exchanged for attractive rewards such as food items, homeware, or vouchers, which simultaneously promotes brand loyalty and increases the customer returning rate.

Public private partnership

The public and private sectors should continue their collaboration to organise meaningful campaigns to reduce plastic bag usage. For instance, there can be a fixed day of every month where no plastic bags will be issued by all supermarkets. Consumers will then have to seek for alternative ways to bring their own carriers.  The government can also explore funding environmental groups and NGOs to come up with creative ideas of using alternatives to plastic bags. From schools to workplaces and to homes, green living habits need to be developed and solidified through education, awareness, and enabling mechanisms until an environmentally-friendly lifestyle becomes a social norm.

Pushing for higher product standards

Finally, there is a need to push for stricter product standards that are suited to our local context. Having products such as biodegradable or compostable plastic bags may seem eco-friendly, but they are actually irrelevant to Singapore’s context since all wastes are eventually incinerated and would occupy the landfill space. Hence, we can focus more on green certifications and labelling schemes that look into the material sources, ensuring that they are responsibly made with renewable materials such as bio-based plastics and recycled contents.

As Singapore moves to become a Zero Waste nation, there is an urgent need to address the high consumption of plastic bags. The COVID-19 pandemic has slowed down our progress in achieving a zero-waste status, but as we learn to adjust and adapt to the new normal, we can also take the opportunity to make green additions to our lifestyles and habits. In our efforts to fulfil SDG #12 Responsible Consumption and Production and to propel Singapore to become a more sustainable and viable city to live in, TEMBUSU Asia Consulting (TAC) offers expert consultancy services for both corporate organisations and municipal cities across Asia. These services include guiding and advising clients on a sustainable roadmap to reducing waste, waste management strategies, waste reporting, as well as compliance with regulatory standards such as the Mandatory Packaging Reporting (MPR).

 

References

A Md-Jalil, N Md-Mian, M Rahman, ‘Using Plastic Bags and Its Damaging Impact on Environment and Agriculture: An Alternative Proposal’, 2013, International Journal of Learning & Development. 3: 1–14.

Boucher, J. and Friot D. (2017). Primary Microplastics in the Oceans: A Global Evaluation of Sources. Gland, Switzerland: IUCN.

Cindy Co. (2021, May 10). Singapore will account for local practices when studying charges for disposable plastic bags: Amy Khor. Available at: https://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/singapore/plastic-bag-charges-singapore-nea-study-consultation-14780628. Accessed on 25 June 2021.

IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) 2018. Marine Plastics. Available at: https://www.iucn.org/sites/dev/files/marine_plastics_issues_brief_final_0.pdf. Accessed on 22 June 2021.

NEA (National Environment Agency, Singapore) 2021. Mandatory Packaging Reporting. Available at: https://www.nea.gov.sg/our-services/waste-management/mandatory-packaging-reporting. Accessed on 22 June 2021

SEC (Singapore Environment Council) 2018. Consumer plastics and plastic resource ecosystem in Singapore. Available at: https://sec.org.sg/wpcontent/uploads/2019/07/DT_PlasticResourceResearch_28Aug2018-FINAL_with-Addendum-19.pdf. Accessed on 22 June 2021.

T Sugii, Plastic Bag Reduction: Policies to Reduce Environmental Impact (2008).