OP-ED – Plastics: Enough Trash Talk
Plastics: Enough trash talk
It’s time to end the talk on plastics as trash. It can be a valuable resource for a small country like Singapore. But this is possible only if governments and businesses approach plastics the right way, and when individuals can look beyond waste disposal and realise the real impact of our plastic problem.
A supermarket plastic bag serves its real purpose for 30 minutes, the duration of a journey in Singapore. In a drink, a straw is utilised for just 5 minutes. The use of a plastic stirrer is even more short-lived: all of 10 seconds.
These items have fleeting lifespans, but they outlive us by a long shot – 400 years, to be exact.
Left in our environment, plastics affect ocean health and biodiversity, including corals, seabirds and endangered species. The problem does not simply end there.
Before they even enter our homes, plastics already contribute to climate change. Globally, the manufacturing of plastics consumes the same amount of fossil fuel as the entire aviation industry.
We are living plastic in every way: eating, drinking and even breathing it. Around the world, microplastics have been found in the guts of one out of four fish, in tap water samples of 14 countries and even in air pollution.
Convenience numbs common sense
Little is being done to address this. There was a huge public outcry when the four largest supermarkets in Singapore floated the idea of a plastic bag charge. Recently, the government announced a decision against a plastic bag ban, highlighting incineration as a solution.
In this all-or-nothing debate that focuses solely on plastic bags, we are missing the point: that we continue to have a major problem with plastic use.
Meanwhile, Singapore generated over 800 million kg of plastic waste last year, only 6% of which was recycled.
The rest of the world is far ahead in taking action on plastic waste.
More than 40 countries have plastic bag bans or taxes in place, including China, Rwanda and Italy. Just across the Causeway, Johor is set to ban plastic bags plastics and polystyrene by this year. Last year, 39 governments announced new commitments to reduce the amount of plastic going into the sea.
By not taking action to reduce plastic’s widespread use, we are perpetuating this global problem. It is high time for a mindset overhaul on plastic in Singapore.
Use less and “useless” plastic
Rather than an all-or-nothing approach, the key lies in understanding what we should use less of, and what we can and should eliminate.
There are “useless” or unnecessary plastics – those that provide a few extra minutes of convenience but are disposed after use. Most plastic straws, lids, cups and stirrers fall in this category. Refusing these useless plastics is an easy step to cutting down on plastic use.
There are plastics that are useful that we can still reduce. A case in point: plastic bags. Singapore’s current usage of plastic bags borders on the excessive. A person in Singapore is estimated to use about 13 plastic bags a day, much more than any household would need for trash disposal.
Alternatives in the form of reusables are widely available in the market today. A recent study by the National Environment Agency has found that a reusable bag replaces the use of 125 single-use plastic bags in a year.
A plastic bag charge can be an effective way to reduce plastic use. Consumption of single-use plastic bags fell by 95 per cent when Ireland introduced a levy in 2002.
In Singapore, lifestyle store chain Miniso witnessed a 75% drop in plastic bag take-up rate after it implemented a $0.10 plastic bag charge in April 2017.
Not all plastics are trash
Even as individuals focus on using less plastic, a wider systemic change is needed to make plastics more useful. Globally, 95% of plastics worth up to US$120 billion are discarded after the first use. Effective recycling ensures that we do not lose economic value from this useful material.
Plastic packaging cannot be eliminated, but it needs to be recovered.
In Singapore, packaging makes up a third of domestic waste. But not enough is being done to hold businesses accountable for the plastics they introduce into the market. In countries such as Japan, for instance, there are laws in place to ensure that businesses do their part to recycle.
Separating plastic waste at the point of disposal also enhances recycling. Currently, Singapore does not require plastics to be segregated from other types of waste. This model undermines recycling efforts and instead incentivises incineration, including that of plastics.
Singapore has made a name for ourselves globally in recovering value from precious resources. We do this for paper and even the water we drink. Why aren’t we treating plastics the same way? An expensive, highly pollutive method like incineration should only be the last solution when all other options are unavailable.
Stop trash talking, start fixing
We have limited time to turn things around. With the looming global plastics crisis, business-as-usual cannot apply.
Businesses need to be held accountable for used plastic, however useful its purpose. This includes being responsible for the entire life cycle of plastics, from packaging to recovery after use.
On a national level, the channels and infrastructure need to be in place to effectively enable recycling by businesses and individuals. Incentives encourage manufacturers to take more responsibility, while disincentives like a plastic tax help spur much needed behaviour change.
To expedite the move towards a more sustainable future, individuals should also play their part by using less plastic, and supporting business and government measures that help address this issue.
We need to stop pushing the responsibility between individuals, businesses and government.
Everyone needs to step up and take action for a problem we will share with the next 16 generations.
The same article was published by The Straits Times on 19 April 2018.
Ahead of Earth Day on 22 April, ten local NGOs and interest groups have co-signed this opinion piece, representing their shared view about the urgent need for collective action on plastic use in Singapore. They are:
- ASEAN CSR Network is a regional business organisation promoting responsible business practices.
- Ocean Recovery Alliance is a non-profit organisation working on solutions and collaborations to improve ocean health.
- Gone Adventurin’ is a business consultancy focused on driving circular economy in Asia.
- International Coastal Cleanup Singapore coordinates and organises marine trash clean-ups on beaches and mangroves.
- Plastic Disclosure Project works to reduce the environmental impact of plastics in products and packaging.
- Plastic-Lite Singapore is a volunteer community raising awareness about the over-use of disposable plastics.
- NUS Toddycats! is a volunteer group with the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum.
- Tingkat Heroes is an initiative working with communities, schools and businesses to go disposables-free.
- Team Small Change is a community that champions small individual changes for large environmental impact.
- WWF-Singapore is a global conservation organisation protecting the natural environment and resources.