Campaign asks Singaporeans to limit plastic bag habit to two a day

The ‘Don’t waste, reduce lah’ campaign by Singapore Environment Council calls on Singaporeans to curb plastic bag use to two a day, and businesses and policymakers to find better ways to deal with the city-state’s growing waste burden—a plastic bag tax was not among the recommendations.

A blue recycling bin in the district of Tiong Bahru, Singapore. The city-state's recycling rate has been stagnant since 2012.  Image: Eco-Business
A blue recycling bin in the district of Tiong Bahru, Singapore. The city-state's recycling rate has been stagnant since 2012, but the Zero Waste Masterplan aims to increase the overall recycling rate to 70 per cent by 2030. Image: Eco-Business

Non-profit group Singapore Environment Council (SEC) is launching a public education campaign that calls on Singaporeans to use one less plastic item a day to reduce the city-state’s mounting plastic waste problem.

The campaign, which carries the slogan ‘Don’t waste, reduce lah’, launches on the back of a study by SEC and professional services firm Deloitte & Touche.

It found that Singapore residents use on average of two to four plastic bags for each trip to the supermarket, one to three polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottles a week, and one to three polypropylene (PP) disposable items such as food take-away containers a week.

This amounts to an annual plastic waste burden of 1.76 billion plastic items used by Singapore a year, the study found.

There is no silver bullet, but asking consumers to just reduce is not a solution that will adequately address the plastic crisis.

Kim Stengert, director of communications, World Wide Fund for Nature Singapore

The data paints a conservative picture of Singapore’s plastic consumption; a Straits Times calculation based on National Environment Agency (NEA) data found that Singapore uses about 27 billion plastic bags a year, or 13 plastic bags per person a day.

SEC’s research suggests that Singapore uses 820 million plastic bags a year, but that number only covers supermarkets, and does not include retailers such as bakeries, coffee shops, and the fast-growing online food delivery sector.

The study was based on the responses of 1,003 Singaporeans in an online survey that ran for six months from December 2017.

It found that 37 per cent of Singaporeans say they recycle PET bottles, 21 per cent recycle PP items, and 2 per cent recycle plastic bags. Singapore’s plastic recycling rate last year was 6 per cent, according to NEA data.

Only 20 per cent of respondents said they use reusable bags to carry their shopping, with women almost twice as likely as men to shop with a reuseable bag.

The survey also asked for reasons for not recycling. Some 70 per cent of respondents said they were not fully aware which types of plastic are recyclable, 41 per cent cited inconvenience as the reason they don’t recycle, and 21 per cent said they did not know the location of the nearest recycling bin.

At a press conference on Tuesday afternoon, SEC called on Singapore consumers to use one less plastic item a day, cap their plastic bag use to two a day, and get into the habit of using reusable bags. 

To tax or not to tax

The group said it did not recommend introducing a charge on plastic bags or other plastic items, saying that bans or taxes had only proven to be temporarily effective in other countries. 

Citing Taiwan as an example, SEC chairman Isabella Loh said that plastic bag use had rebounded after Taiwanese consumers got used to paying for bags, and that bags sold by retailers became thicker after the ban to meet consumer expections for a more durable carrier, exacerbating the pollution problem.

She described a tax on plastic bags as “draconian.”

Kim Stengert, World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) Singapore director of communications, told Eco-Business that while a plastic tax was not the only measure needed to address consumption, it is “an important first step” to take before other measures kick in.

These include Extended Producer Responsibility, a principle used in Japan that requires companies to take responsibility for the plastic they produce at the end of its lifecycle, and deposit and return schemes, trials for which started in Singapore in January.

“There is no silver bullet, but asking consumers to just reduce is not a solution that will adequately address the plastic crisis,” Stengert told Eco-Business. 

Partnering SEC’s study is Singapore’s largest supermarket chain NTUC Fairprice, which has resisted calls from green groups to introduce a plastic bag charge, and soft drinks giant Coca-Cola.

NTUC Fairprice’s director of communications Jonas Kor said at the event that a plastic charge would not work without government legislation to level the playing field for all retailers, and consensus among all retailers was also needed.

“The onus should be on public education, and getting people to understand their own consumption habits, and to use plastic items more efficiently,” he said.

Singapore is a global pioneer in water management. We can be a leader in plastic innovation too.

Isabella Loh, chairman, Singapore Environment Council

Singapore’s plastic opportunity

SEC’s research highlighted the challenges Singapore faces in reducing plastic consumption, including a lack of motivation to replace plastic with reusable items among consumers, a weak local market for recycled goods, and the lack of recycling facilities in Singapore—plastic waste is exported to Malaysia to be recycled.

Incinerating waste for energy, Singapore’s preferred strategy for managing waste, was not highlighted as a challenge, although WWF has argued that burning plastic waste reduces the incentive to recycle. Singapore incinerates 94 per cent of its plastic waste.

“Our incineration activity is so successful that no one notices what happens to the plastic when you throw it into the bin,” remarked Seah Seng Choon, SEC vice chairman. “We should extract it and make use of it in a more productive way.”

In a panel discussion at the event, participants concluded that Singapore needed to find new and better ways to handle its plastic waste burden, with the city-state’s only landfill site, Semakau Island, expected to be full by 2035 or sooner.

“We need to think harder about how Singapore uses plastic resources, and turn it into a local industry,” said Loh, citing innovations such as converting plastic into fuel as opportunities for innovation.

“Singapore is a global pioneer in water management. We can be a leader in plastic innovation too,” she said.

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