Singapore to introduce legislation on sustainable packaging

Companies in the city-state will need to comply with regulations on minimising packaging waste in the next three to five years, Singapore’s Minister for the Environment and Water Resources said at the CleanEnviro Summit Singapore conference.

packaging plastic food
A supermarket shelf stocked full of food in plastic packaging. Image: Adisa /

Singapore’s National Environment Agency (NEA) will be introducing mandatory requirements for companies to use sustainable resources in packaging and reduce packaging waste in the next three to five years, the country’s Minister for the Environment and Water Resources Masagos Zulkifli announced on Tuesday. 

The agency is still deciding on what forms the regulations could take, but preliminary ideas include requiring companies to submit annual reports on how much packaging it uses, to develop waste reduction plans, or to meet recycling targets. 

In an opening address at the 3R Packaging Awards ceremony at the sidelines of the CleanEnviro Summit Singapore 2016, Masagos noted that the country produced 1.73 million tonnes of domestic waste last year, and one-third of this was from packaging. 

While the Singapore Packaging Agreement (SPA) - a voluntary initiative by NEA, industry and waste management associations, companies, and non-government organisations to reduce waste - has made “commendable” efforts since it was signed in 2007, much more work is needed, he said. 

“The amount of packaging waste reduced by their efforts - about 6,300 tonnes last year - constitutes less than 1 per cent of the annual amount of packaging waste disposed off in Singapore,” Masagos told the 300-strong audience at the Sands Expo and Convention Centre. 

To help Singapore achieve its goal of becoming a zero waste nation and curb the growth of packaging waste at the source, NEA consulted more than 140 representatives from 100 organisations across the manufacturing, food and beverages, and other sectors on the possibility of packaging regulations.  

“The response was generally positive as companies recognised the need for a mandatory framework,” shared Masagos. 

However, companies did express some concerns during the consultations.  

These include the fact that small companies will not have the same resources as multinational corporations to comply with regulations, and that there needs to be a level playing field for firms which manufacture products locally and those who import their wares. 

NEA said that it will review this feedback, and continue to work with industry to study the feasibility of various regulatory options. 

A smart way to zero waste 

Minimising packaging waste is part of a broader challenge that Singapore and other cities will face as they grow increasingly compact and crowded, said Masagos during a subsequent plenary session. 

As urban populations grow and become more densely packed, it is inevitable that cities will struggle with minimising waste and keeping the environment clean, he added. 

Singapore, for example, must negotiate the logistics of transporting growing mountains of waste, emptying bins multiple times a day, and finding enough cleaners among an increasingly affluent, educated population who are reluctant to take up these jobs. 

We designed economic systems that produced waste, and now we must solve that problem with policy and regulatory frameworks, public-private partnerships, and business model innovation.

Peter Lacy, managing director, Accenture Strategy and Sustainability Services

Measures that could make it easier to manage this include encouraging cleaning companies to be more productive by pursuing mechanisation and automation; and phasing out the common practice of installing a rubbish chute in every public housing flat in Singapore, said Masagos. 

“But the most important thing for any city is culture,” he said. Once behaviours such as conscientious recycling and not littering have been ingrained in people, “the rest can fall into place,” Masagos noted. 

One city which has an extremely high recycling rate of 70 per cent, and sends a negligible percentage of its household waste to landfills is Antwerp, Belgium. 

Phillip Heylen, the City of Antwerp’s Alderman for culture, economy, city and district maintenance, heritage and religious services, said that the city did not achieve its waste management success overnight, but over three decades.  

Like Singapore, Antwerp is a small, densely populated city with few natural resources, said Heylen. It had succeeded in waste minimisation through a combination of legal, educational, and economic measures, he said. 

These included: spreading awareness about the importance of waste minimisation from a young age; allocate enough finance for investing in waste management technology and infrastructure; and good governance.  

Similar strategies could work for other cities too, though there is no universal template for success, noted Heylen added. 

“We invest a lot in waste management because we have no choice,” he added. “When I look at waste, I see resources”. 

Echoing this sentiment, Peter Lacy, managing director, Accenture Strategy and Sustainability Services, noted that the circular economy — that is, business models where resources are never wasted but repeatedly reused — presents a US$4.5 trillion opportunity to restructure the global economy. 

The circular economy involves processes such as breaking down products at the end of their life cycle and making them into new ones, and leasing products to customers instead of selling them outright.

Some successful examples of these practices include a move by French tyre-maker Michelin to charge customers by the distance travelled instead of per tyre - the company takes back tyres when they are worn out and retreads them - and an initiative by American carpet tile maker Interface, which uses discarded fishing nets from the Philippines and Cameroon to make its carpets. 

This concept shows “how businesses can deliver customer value but decouple from the harmful use of scarce natural resources,” said Lacy. 

The key to helping businesses unlock the potential of the circular economy is technology, he added. The rise of big data, the Internet of Things and robotics are just a few trends that will push businesses to maximise the efficiency of their operations and reduce resource wastage, he added. 

Ultimately, the circular economy takes the view that “the planet doesn’t do waste,” noted Lacy. “We designed economic systems that produced waste, and now we must solve that problem with policy and regulatory frameworks, public-private partnerships, and business model innovation”. 

The CleanEnviro Singapore Summit is co-located with the World Cities Summit and Singapore International Water Week, held in Singapore from 10 to 14 July.

The biennial event brings together more than 20,000 delegates from the water, waste, environment, and urban planning sectors, and also features an integrated expo for companies to showcase their solutions. 

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