Singapore’s polluter-pays scheme faces further delay amid concern over industry stalling tactics

The city-state’s drinks container return scheme has been pushed back – the latest in a series of delays. Industry sources point to Coca-Cola being instrumental in stalling an Extender Producer Responsibility scheme that aims to improve Singapore’s poor plastics recycling rate.

Singapore's Extended Producer Responsibility scheme will require all importers and manufacturers of beverage containers in Singapore to collect most of the products they sell to consumers. Industry players led by Coca-Cola have opposed the scheme, citing cost and other concerns.
Singapore's Extended Producer Responsibility scheme will require all importers and manufacturers of beverage containers in Singapore to collect 60 per cent the products they sell to consumers. Industry players have opposed the scheme, citing cost and other concerns. Image: Robin Hicks / Eco-Business

The launch of a much-anticipated system to increase Singapore’s low recycling rate for plastic packaging has been postponed.

Sources have pointed to industry delay tactics holding back an initiative to reduce plastic waste that was mooted in Singapore almost two decades ago. The city-state’s environment agency has confirmed that a consortium of big beverage brands tasked to run the scheme has taken “more time than expected to put up a proposal”. 

The beverage container return scheme was announced in 2020 and made law in 2022, with an initial launch date set for mid-2024. That date was subsequently pushed back to April 2025 and is now set to be delayed again, with soft drinks giant Coca-Cola believed to have been instrumental in stalling the process, Eco-Business understands. 

The scheme requires all importers and manufacturers of beverage containers in Singapore to collect 60 per cent of the products they sell – a target that rises to 80 per cent by the third year. Producers pay a system operator fee to collect metal cans and plastic bottles, and charge consumers S$0.10 (US$0.07) extra for a beverage, which can be reclaimed when the packaging is returned.

Such schemes have been implemented in more than 50 jurisdictions and have achieved return rates of more than 80 per cent.

However, the cost of setting up the system, which includes an upfront fee and logistics costs, has been among the concerns of industry players as well as where the collection points should be located, according to an industry source familiar with the process. A topic of debate has been whether collection points are needed in addition to those installed at retailers to make returning used containers as convenient as possible.

A consortium of industry players including Sapporo Holdings-owned drinks brands Pokka, Thai-Singaporean food and beverage firm Fraser and Neave (F&N), and Coca-Cola was set to be appointed as the scheme operator after protracted negotiations that included debate over collection targets and penalties for non-compliance. 

NEA confirms slowdown is due to consortium

In response to queries from Eco-Business, NEA said the consortium “took more time than expected” to put up a proposal for the scheme, having submitted a licence application to be scheme operator in February 2024 “after several timeline extensions.”

The agency said it has accepted the consortium’s licence application “subject to various licensing conditions which the consortium has agreed to comply with”.

“NEA will continue to work with the consortium on the formation of the scheme operator as well as to finalise the implementation details, including the timeline,” the agency said.

Retailers will need eight to 12 months to set up operations after the scheme operator is formed, which could mean a launch date of 2026 or later, an industry source has suggested.

NEA invited industry to apply for a scheme operator licence in April 2023. A consortium of Pokka, F&N and Coca-Cola, which represent a big chunk of Singapore’s soft drinks industry, applied the following month.

The idea behind the scheme, which is the first time Singapore has taken an Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) or “polluter pays” approach to managing packaging waste, is to boost the city’s recycling rate – just 6 per cent for plastics, well below the global average of 9 per cent. Most of Singapore’s plastic waste is incinerated.

In a statement, a Coca-Cola Singapore spokesperson told Eco-Business that it recognises that it has a responsibility to address plastic pollution and supports deposit return schemes around the world, including in Singapore.

“We believe that a well-designed scheme should be consumer-focused and ensure environmental, social, and economic viability. We are working closely with the National Environment Agency and industry to shape a scheme that achieves these objectives,” the spokesperson said.

Coca-Cola, however, has denied its leadership role in the consortium. NEA has also clarified that the consortium is not led by any one company.

Coca-Cola, which is often named among the world’s biggest plastic polluters in marine litter audits, has made high-profile sustainability commitments to recycle every bottle and can it produces by 2030 and use at least 50 per cent recycled material in its packaging by the same year. But it also has a well-documented history of opposing deposit return schemes.

While Coke is actively involved in EPR schemes in jurisdictions where polluter-pays laws are now in play, the company has reportedly lobbied against polluter-pays initiatives in territories including Scotland, Australia, Romania, and the United States. Its strategy for opposing deposit return schemes has been documented through leaked internal documents.

Eco-Business has reached out to F&N and Pokka for comment, but the beverage producers had not responded at the time of publication.

A polluter pays scheme for packaging was first proposed by NEA in 2005. The Singapore Packaging Agreement (SPA), a voluntary waste reporting and reduction initiative, was introduced as an alternative. SPA has been criticised by industry observers for lacking “teeth” and being the result of industry lobbying

Singapore is aiming to reduce the amount of incinerated rubbish sent to its only landfill, Pulau Semakau, by 30 per cent per person by 2030 under its waste masterplan. The landfill is projected to be full by 2035 or earlier.

Commenting on the news, Robert Kelman, Asia Pacific director of Reloop, a circular economy research non-profit, said that delays to deposit return schemes “play into the hands of the big beverage producers”.

“Drinks producers are generally not supportive of drink container refund schemes as they place an onus on them to recover and recycle the packaging they put to market and pay for the costs of operating these schemes,” he said. 

“Delays like this run the risk of giving an opportunity to drinks producers to overturn these schemes, or water them down and make them less effective.”

The news emerges a week after Hong Kong – the only city in Asia that has a higher waste footprint per person than Singapore – introduced a sweeping ban on single-use plastic.

Meanwhile policymakers are meeting in Ottawa to negotiate a global treaty on plastic pollution, which industry players are reportedly lobbying to exclude limits on plastic production.


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