Single-use plastic bags are stuffed into a grate door in Little India, Singapore. Only 6 per cent of the city-state's plastic waste was recycled last year. Image: Michael Coghlan/Flickr
Single-use plastic bags are stuffed into a grate door in Little India, Singapore. Only 6 per cent of the city-state's plastic waste was recycled last year. Image: Michael Coghlan/flickr Michael Coghl

Singapore’s battle with disposable plastic addiction

The average Singaporean uses an unconscionable 13 plastic bags a day. With its only landfill site fast filling up, what are consumers and businesses doing to defuse Singapore’s plastic waste time bomb?

A generation ago, Singaporeans brought home takeaway food from hawker stalls in tingkat, the Malay word for tiffin carrier, and groceries they bought from wet markets were wrapped in newspaper and palm leaves, and carried home in bamboo shopping baskets. 

Today, containers made from natural materials have been replaced by disposable plastics. While plastic bags get most of the bad press — the average Singaporean uses 13 plastic bags a day, according to data from Straits Times — they make up only a fifth of a plastic waste stream that has increased seven-fold since the 1970s, and weighed 800 million kg last year.

“Using plastic is still a relatively new way to shop,” says Khee Shihui, who writes about her daily struggle to reduce her plastic consumption with the name ‘TabaoGirl’ (Da bao means takeaway in Chinese) on Instagram. “People seem to have forgotten the old way of doing things.”

In just a few decades, residents in the city-state have developed a serious addiction to disposable plastics, and the clock is ticking to 2035, when the country’s only landfill site, Semakau Island, is projected to be fullThe root of the problem is that people “feel disconnected” from the petroleum-derived products they consume, says Khee.

Just as quickly as plastic trash is thrown away and removed by Singapore’s efficient cleaning system, it vanishes from the consumer consciousness. Disposable plastic is now part of the culture, “and we don’t stop to think about alternatives,” she says. 

Some people think plastic is better for the environment because no water—a scarce resource in Singapore—is required to wash it. Others think everything can be recycled so it does not harm the environment.

Dawn Chen, founder, Your Sustainable Store

Dawn Chen, founder of Your Sustainable Store, which sells sustainable alternatives to single-use plastic, says that ignorance and convenient excuses mask the problem.

Some people think plastic is better for the environment because no watera scarce resource in Singaporeis required to wash it. Others think everything can be recycled so it does not harm the environment,” she says.

Retailers are set up to feed Singapore’s obsession with convenience. Eco-Business visited bakery chain BreadTalk last month and observed one customer use nine plastic bags to buy six buns. Each bun was individually bagged, and three more larger bags used to carry them all.

Assuming every customer uses a similar amount of plastic per purchase, this store alone would use 5,400 disposable plastic bags every day, or about 2 million bags a year. Breadtalk has more than 1,000 bakery outlets across the region serving products in the same way.

BreadTalk did not respond to questions about how much plastic the company uses, but told Eco-Business that since 2016 it started encouraging cashiers to “proactively” ask customers if they need extra plastic bags to carry their purchases, and will combine items into one plastic bag “where it does not compromise the product quality.”

Delivering trash: Would you like some food with your plastic? 

While some traditional retailers such as KFC have taken measures to reduce their plastic footprint — in June, KFC  became the first fast food chain in Singapore to remove plastic straws and lids from its restaurants, a move that will save 17.8 metric tonnes of single-use plastic a year — the fastest growing contributer to Singapore’s waste burden is the online food delivery sector, which is predicted to triple by 2020.

Homegrown online supermarket RedMart is among the largest players and, like BreadTalk, the firm individually bags different types of items such as meat, fruit, seafood, and vegetables to avoid “cross contamination” during storage and transit, and each delivery is made in plastic tote bags or cardboard boxes.

Though RedMart does offer to take back and recycle plastic bags and delivery boxes for its customers, the company got through 160 tonnes of plastic bags—about the weight of a blue whale—in 2017, according to data shared with Eco-Business.

A complaint about a RedMart delivery posted on the ‘Ban Plastic Bags Singapore‘ Facebook page.

RedMart a year ago switched to oxo-biodegradable bags, which the company claims require 50 per cent less material to make than regular bags. Tula Goodwin, a British expat and director of a public relations firm, is not alone in having threatened to take her business elsewhere unless RedMart changed how it packages goods. “They now use biodegradable bags, which seems to make more sense to me,” she says. “Everybody has to take a degree of responsibility.”

Breadtalk also introduced biodegradable bags in 2008, but there are many varieties of biodegradeable plastic, and they may not be greener than the regular kind, as it only degrades at high temperatures, and when it does, forms microplastic particles that are wreaking havoc on the world’s oceans. 

Also, since Singapore incinerates most of its waste (only 6 per cent of the country’s plastic waste was recycled last year—in recycling plants in Malaysia), biodegradable plastic “may not be better for the environment”, the National Environment Agency (NEA) concluded in a lifecycle study of carrier bags and packaging released in March.

RedMart plans to trial reusable bags, but admits that much will depend on customers to “make the returns flow work”. The company is also exploring alternatives to plastic cable ties, tape, and shrink wrap as part of its commitment to the Singapore Packaging Agreement, a cross-industry pact to curb packaging wastewhich accounts for one third of domestic waste in Singapore. 

By 2020, businesses will have to report the type and amount of packaging they put into the market to the NEA, and outline their plans for reducing it. In December last year, food delivery platform Foodpanda made a headstart by making disposable cutlery optional.

The Berlin-headquartered multinational, which launched in Singapore six years ago, says that about 10 per cent of orders have opted out of receiving plastic cutlery from 30 participating restaurants. The company admits that “there is still a long way to go,” but estimates that the initiative has saved 60,000 sets of cutlery a month from the incinerator.

Almost all of our customers are just indifferent. I have had great difficulty motivating our staff to actively participate in the campaign. Sad to say, we have not saved any bags at all.

Chang Nam Yuen, managing director, Rehab Mart Homecare

Bring your own

Green groups have long campaigned for the introduction of a levy or ban on plastic bags, which have proved successful at reducing plastic pollution in 40 countries, including Malaysia, Hong Kong, China and India. A survey by World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) in March found that 74 per cent of Singaporeans would support such a measure.

Recycling bins at NTUC Fairprice’s Tiong Bahru store. Image: Eco-Business

Major retailers NTUC FairPrice, Dairy Farm Group, Prime Supermarket and Sheng Siong discussed introducing a plastic bag charge last year, but concluded that customers would complain and take their custom elsewhere.

How easy is it to lead a plastic-lite lifestyle in Singapore?

Eco-Business interviewed consumers for their views on leading a plastic-lite lifestyle in Singapore.

“It’s easy to dramatically reduce single-use plastic if you have a routine. It’s about figuring out step by step what can be bought without it. That takes time. Some eateries will serve food and drinks in disposables even if I’m dining in. Or some shops are not ok with me bringing my own container. If I’m buying something from a shop, I have to be very diligent about saying “I don’t need a bag”.

Ng Xin Yi, experience designer

“Most retailers are a bit confused about replacing the plastic bags they would use with my one reusable one. But I offer to pack it myself so it makes their jobs easier. When it comes to straws, retailers often forget I’ve asked for no straw. It’s such a natural impulse to add a straw to a drink, and this needs to change.”

Holly Chapman, project administrator

“Not using plastic requires a lot of preparation as I need to carry cutlery with me and shopping bags. Some people don’t want to put in the effort or don’t think that plastic consumption is a problem. Others are not aware that there are alternatives.”

Nina Braum-Bharti, grade 5 student

“Everything seems to come wrapped in acres of plastic, and recycling is not enforced in any way. Every recycling bin seems to contain everything BUT what it’s supposed to! I always refuse the plastic bags when offered. This is often met with confusion, derision, or sometimes even a laugh.”

Tula Goodwin, PR agency director

“It’s not easy in supermarkets as fruit and vegetables are heavily wrapped in plastic.
Take aways are more difficult as retailers provide plastic by default. The worst example is the take away kopi, with the plastic carrier on top of the take-away cup—an ecological aberration.”

Patrick d’Huart, regional manager

The government has also resisted calls to legislate. “Imposing a charge or ban on disposable plastic bags and substituting them with other types of disposable bags is unlikely to improve environmental outcomes,” Dr Amy Khor, Senior Minister of State for the Environment and Water Resources, said in parliament in March.

So the focus has been bottom-up. Non-profit Zero Waste SG is running a campaign to encourage consumers to bring their own cutlery and utensils to food outlets in exchange for discounts and freebies.

Between September and December 2017, 2.6 million pieces of disposable plastic were saved as a result of the campaign. 

Foreward Coffee was one of the first of 430 outlets to take part in BYO campaign. Located on the campus of the National University of Singapore, the coffee store gives students who bring their own cups a 10 per cent discount.

Peer pressure has helped. “Friends jeer at friends who ‘forget’ to bring their own cup,” shares Lim Wei Jie, Foreward Coffee’s co-founder. “Sometimes customers apologise if they don’t bring their own cup.”

Sales have grown for reusable KeepCups and metal straws, which the coffeeshop started selling in January. But Foreward Coffee is lucky to have customers—students and professors—who are generally environmentally conscious, admits Lim.

Not so for healthcare chain Rehab Mart Homecare, which says its attempt to encourage its customers to bring their own bags has been a “total failure” due to the indifference of both staff and customers.  

Sad to say, we have not saved any bags at all,” laments managing director Chang Nam Yuen. Only legislation can do the job of reducing single-use plastic consumption, Chang believes.

“No country in the world has ever succeeded in reducing plastic bag use without introducing laws. I don’t see how Singapore can succeed by just using public education. We have tried for more than a decade already,” he says.

Salad chain SaladStop! went a step further by introducing a 10 cent charge for plastic bags, which it donates to animal welfare charity Acres. In March this year, SaladStop! sold 13,149 plastic bags and immediately saw a 30 per cent reduction in monthly plastic consumption. 

But the store has received complaints from some customers who do not see the point of paying extra for an already highly-priced purchase. One SaladStop! customer wrote: “Charging 10 cents for a takeaway bag is just cheap. If you need additional revenue just raise the price 10 cents. Do you think we walk around with a bag in our pocket in anticipation of going to Salad Stop? I’ll rethink the next time I’m deciding what to buy.”

But factoring in the cost of cleaning up used plastic might be a way to reduce consumption, says Matt Stanelos, Singpore director, waste business line for waste management firm Veolia. “Single-use plastic items are generally cheap and convenient at the initial purchase point—externality costs such as cleaning them up post consumption excluded,” he says.

“The most effective way to reduce their consumption would be to make an alternative that is cheaper or more convenient, or to price the externality costs in at the purchase point.” 

The hygiene factor

Though the BYO campaign is taking off in pockets around the country, some large food and beverage retailers are opposed to the idea, observes Khee, who takes a 750ml cup for cold drinks, another for coffee, two sets of dining utensils, a hankerchief and a lunch box with her everywhere she goes.

Is incineration the answer?

Singapore’s four waste-to-energy incineration plants may generate electricity—made from oil, plastic generates a lot of heat when burned—but burning plastic produces harmful pollutants such as dioxins. NEA says these pollutants are captured by filters before they’re released into the atmosphere.

As Singapore’s only landfill site is expected to be filled by 2035 or earlier, reducing waste is a matter of urgency. At the moment, citizens are not required to separate their waste at source, which acts as a disincentive for recycling, argues Elaine Tan, CEO of WWF Singapore. But as Semakau fills up, reusing and recycling plastic will become “increasingly attractive alternatives” to incineration, says Matt Stanelos of Veolia. 

China’s decision to stop importing other countries’ waste at the end of last year may also present Singapore with an opportunity to increase the efficiency of its recycling efforts, and drive innovation in the sector, he says.

Some worry that BYO customers will blame the store if they fall ill, while others fret that BYO will lead to disagreements over portion size, Khee says. “The instinct from cashiers is to refuse something that they fear might get them into trouble,” she adds.

The biggest barrier to cutting single-use plastic in Singapore seems to be the notion that to do so will compromise cleanlinessa big deal in spotless Singapore, where plastic bags are seen as necessary to hygienically dispose of wet waste down high-rise building garbage chutes.

None of the major retailers, however, seem worried by the reputational risk of being associated with plastic profligacy. This is because the majority of their customers are “still too happy with our plastic,” says Madhumitha Ardhanari, a strategist with sustainability non-profit Forum for the Future.

This could change as consumers become more aware of the environmental damage wrought by single-use plastic—and its potential health impacts, she says.

“The moment the link is made that water quality and the nutritional quality of foods is possibly impacted by plastics, I think companies that are freely giving out plastic will be in trouble,” says Ardhanari.

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