Singapore green group calls for mandatory plastic bag charge

Non-profit green group Zero Waste SG calls for a government-mandated 10-cent fee for large shopping carriers in Singapore, in a bid to reduce litter and resource wastage.

singapore buying bags
Patrons at a hawker stall in Singapore accept plastic bags for their takeaway food. Singaporeans use about 2.5 billion bags a year. Image: Su-May, CC BY 2.0

In a bid to reduce the wasteful use of plastic bags and encourage people to bring their own reusable bags when shopping, Singapore’s newest green group Zero Waste SG has called for a scheme that imposes a mandatory charge for plastic bags in the city-state.

The non-governmental organisation on Monday (September 12) released a recommendation paper urging a policy where all retailers in Singapore charge 10 cents for large plastic bags, and five cents for smaller bags.

The proposed scheme would be rolled out in two phases: first, to major supermarkets, chain stores, and retailers in the city-state, and later, to smaller shops, hawkers, as well as small and medium enterprises.

Eugene Tay, executive director, Zero Waste SG, shared that the group hopes to start a dialogue with the National Environment Agency (NEA) on their recommendations, and also discuss the feasibility of the charge and how to get major supermarkets and retailers involved. 

The proposed nationwide mandatory charge would apply to carrier bags, flat top bags (that is, thin film bags without handles), as well as biodegradable or compostable bags. However, bags for carrying food without packaging, frozen or chilled items, or prescription medicine would be exempt from the fee.

Environmental groups worldwide have been fighting to ban or impose fees on plastic bags for decades, driven by concerns that improperly disposed bags end up as litter that can kill or poison wild animals; as well as concerns about the natural resources used and greenhouse gas emissions produced when these bags are manufactured or incinerated. 

In Singapore, residents currently use some 2.5 billion bags per year. That is, each person uses 452 bags a year, or about 1.2 bags every day. While plastic bags are considered a necessity for the hygienic disposal of household waste in the tropical island nation, a 2013 study by local non-profit Singapore Environment Council (SEC), found that many of these plastic bags end up as waste.

A third of households have more than 40 bags stashed away in drawers at home, while about a quarter of Singaporeans take more than 10 bags a week from various sources. This is more than is required in households that empty their trash once a day.  

Zero Waste SG’s recommendation builds on an earlier call from SEC in 2013 to charge for plastic bags only on weekends, and follows a series of decisions by international governments to introduce a mandatory charge for plastic bags.  

England, for example, in July introduced a five-pence charge for plastic bags, joining Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland which have had similar laws in place since the early 2010s. 

In Ireland, a 22-cent levy per bag had an immediate effect on consumer behaviour with a decrease in plastic bag usage from an estimated 328 bags per capita per year to 21 bags per capita per year. 

Such successes elsewhere would help assure Singapore’s government that the idea works, said Tay.

NEA told Eco-Business in a statement that it “agrees with ZeroWaste SG that there is scope for reducing the number of plastic bags used in Singapore”. 

However, initiatives that aim to reduce plastic bag use need the support of the community in order to succeed, noted the agency, adding that it is “encouraged by ground-up efforts from retailers and environmental groups that urge consumers to use reusable bags and reduce the excessive use of plastic bags”. 

The agency in August also called a tender for a study on how different types of single-use carriers compare in terms of cost and impact to the environment. 

Staying competitive and inclusive

Retailers, meanwhile, cited competitiveness as a key concern when implementing a plastic bag charge.

Koh Kok Sin, chairperson of local supermarket chain NTUC FairPrice’s Green Committee, said that “the implementation should not create an uneven playing field for any retailer, big or small”.

“This means that it should be implemented for all retailers, and there needs to be a suitable and appropriate enforcement mechanism,” he noted.

Koh also added that proposed policy measures had to look at how to offset costs for low-income groups, “as every cent spent on plastic bags could have gone towards feeding their families”.

Currently, NTUC FairPrice encourages customers to bring their own bags by offering a 10-cent rebate for a minimum purchase of S$10 to those who do so. Thanks to this scheme, FairPrice saves about five to six million plastic bags a year.

The implementation should not create an uneven playing field for any retailer, big or small.  This means that it should be implemented for all retailers, and there needs to be a suitable and appropriate enforcement mechanism.

Koh Kok Sin, chairperson, NTUC FairPrice Green Committee

But mandatory efforts in Singapore could be more effective than voluntary schemes such as rebates, or the “Bring Your Own Bag Day” programme implemented by the NEA and SEC from 2007 to 2010, said the report.

Swedish furniture giant IKEA in 2007 announced it would charge five cents for plastic bags in its Singapore stores, before stopping their sale altogether in 2013, while the National University of Singapore’s green group, Students Against the Violation of the Earth (SAVE), implemented a 10-cent tax for bags on campus in 2010.

In the process, IKEA Singapore used 5.34 million fewer plastic bags in the first year alone, while SAVE saw an 86 per cent reduction in plastic bag consumption on campus between 2010 and 2015.

Based on a survey of 457 shoppers, Zero Waste SG’s report found that 65 per cent of them would take fewer plastic bags from supermarkets if there was a charge imposed on each bag, and 58 per cent of them would bring their own.

Shoppers also overwhelmingly voted for the money collected through this fee to be channelled back to government-run environmental projects, or to environmental non-profit organisations. 

About 45 per cent of those surveyed did not think the 10-cent per bag charge would add to their financial burden, though a quarter of them were worried about the economic impact of this fee.

Addressing these concerns, the paper noted that if a family took 10 bags from the supermarket every week for household waste disposal, the total cost of bags for an entire year would be S$52.

This is 0.07 per cent of the annual household income of families that live in landed properties, and 0.35 per cent of the annual wages of those living in one- or two-room government housing.

The fee is therefore affordable for most households, and low-income homes could be given further assistance in the form of subsidies from the private sector or donations of reusable bags, noted ZeroWaste SG.

Ultimately, said the report, Singaporeans need to accept that the practice of giving out free plastic bags will not continue “because there are environmental costs to ‘free’ bags”. 

It added: “We should not let our children and future generations pay for these environmental costs.”

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