The cost of free plastic bags on the environment and ways to reduce our reliance on single-use plastic
The Great Pacific Garbage Patch
I remember learning about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch some years ago, via an article with the ghastly image of a dead seabird, its stomach filled with bits of plastic. The article reported on the gyre of waste materials in the North Pacific and the seabirds and other marine creatures, like sea turtles, that fed on the plastic waste around them. Many of these animals eventually die of starvation after their stomachs have been filled with plastic and they are no longer able to feed. The disturbing image made me ponder about the causes of the extensive pollution and the deaths of marine animals. Where has the waste come from? Why do we have so much plastic waste in the oceans?
Plastics are the main offender in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and in water bodies globally. Waste from landfills and shorelines drift into the waterways. Everything else that ends up in the oceans biodegrades and returns to nature, but plastics last, nearly, forever. It is said to have a lifespan longer than 400 years, but plastic, as a material, was not even in existence 400 years ago. The first man-made plastic material was an organic material derived from cellulose called Parkesine, shown around 155 years ago, at the Great International Exhibition in London in 1862. We cannot know for certain if plastic would outlast 400 years. Its effects on the environment are only beginning to show, as findings on the presence of microplastics in water and the bodies of marine creatures emerge over the past few years. Plastic waste will be a growing problem if individuals, industries and governments globally do not do anything about it. Just last month, the United Nations, at the United Nations Environment Assembly in Nairobi, Kenya, highlighted the “planetary crisis” of plastic in water bodies globally, and passed a resolution to end marine plastic pollution. Plastics, made from non-renewable crude oil, are not only resource-intensive but also emit toxins and greenhouse gases when burnt. In many parts of the world, especially rural environments where waste is openly burnt, the use of single-use plastics also contributes to air pollution.
Addiction to Convenience
Unfortunately, the addiction to single-use plastic is pervasive in Singapore and in many other countries around the world. Plastic, with its promise of cheap and convenient disposability, has overtaken many other natural materials like wood, glass, and metal, as the material of choice for storage. It is challenging to find fresh or processed food that is not wrapped in a layer of plastic in local supermarkets. Many Singaporeans order lunch and eat it out of takeaway plastic boxes, with disposable plastic cutlery. Apart from the plastic packaging around food, a large majority of shoppers in Singapore are reliant on plastic bags, freely distributed, to take home their purchases from the stores.
Proposed Charge on Plastic Bags in Singapore
Zero Waste Singapore, a non-governmental organisation “dedicated to help Singapore eliminate the concept of waste, and accelerate the shift towards zero waste and the circular economy”, published a recommendation paper on the implementation of a plastic bag charge in Singapore in 2016. In the paper, Zero Waste Singapore published findings from a public survey it had conducted to understand the opinions of supermarket shoppers on the use of plastic bags and whether the Singaporean public was ready for a plastic bag charge. It found that the majority (about 85%) of surveyed shoppers relied on plastic bags from the supermarket to carry their purchased items. A small minority used their own reusable bags or trolleys without taking any plastic bags from the store. Survey findings also indicated that the majority (about 65%) of shoppers would take fewer bags from the supermarket if they were charged ten cents per bag. This led to Zero Waste Singapore’s recommendation that the government introduce a mandatory plastic bag charge at supermarkets, which distribute the most plastic bags, in the first phase of the proposed scheme. With the aim of disincentivising the excessive consumption of plastic bags in Singapore, it proposed that supermarkets charge shoppers five to ten cents per plastic bag. This was hotly debated in the local media in September 2017, with many members of the public voicing their disagreement with the proposal on social media.
Effects of a Plastic Bag Charge
The charge for plastic bags has been implemented in many cities around the world – Hong Kong, Portland, London, and within Southeast Asia- Penang and Bali. Each of these cities has seen the number of plastic bags handed out at stores drop dramatically following the introduction of a plastic bag charge. Plastic bag usage dropped by 85% in the first six months after the introduction of a five pence plastic bag charge in England in October 2015. In Singapore, the Japanese lifestyle chain store Miniso similarly implemented a plastic bag charge (of ten cents per bag) and saw a 75% drop in the number of plastic bags taken by shoppers in the five months after its introduction. IKEA Singapore was the first to implement the plastic bag charge in 2007, before completely phasing out single-use plastic bags in 2013. Instead, consumers are encouraged to bring their own bags or purchase one of their reusable iconic blue carriers to take their items home. These examples, successfully implemented in Singapore’s context, serve as small success stories which could be scaled to greater effect in supermarkets and department stores.
Though many share the view that the plastic bag charge will be an important measure to reduce the consumption of plastic bags and encourage shoppers to take only what they need, others highlighted that the mandatory plastic bag charge could be a burden on the less well-off, who, like many Singapore residents, use the plastic bags to dispose their waste. The majority of Singaporeans live in apartment blocks with built-in garbage chutes on every level, and plastic bags play an important part in the disposal of household waste into these chutes. They are used to bag household waste, especially organic waste, in order to keep vermin at bay. Commentators on social media have expressed that the plastic bag charge may result in the undesirable effect of residents throwing their waste down the chutes without bagging them, which may attract pests to the chutes. These arguments use extreme scenarios which may not be valid if consumers and responsible citizens find ways to reuse plastic bags that are already part of packaging or old newspapers to dispose of waste. If at all necessary, a plastic bag a day to dispose of waste, would cost only three dollars a month.
Changing Consumer Behaviour
Though the consciousness of consumers is typically heightened when it hurts the wallet, we need to continue efforts to heighten consumer consciousness to the environmental price tag with longer-term effects that are invisible to many consumers. Where education on the destructive effects of plastic waste has been ineffective in changing human behaviour on a large-scale, the charge for plastic bags, as seen in cities around the world, may see greater success in shaping behaviour, as few would be compelled to change their behaviour without an economic incentive or cost.
In response to the proposed charge for plastic bags, some suggested that without a change in the local waste management system, plastic bags would remain a necessity. Some also commented that single-use plastic bottles and styrofoam takeout boxes and plates are more detrimental to the environment than plastic bags, such that a charge for plastic bags would do little to reduce the environmental impact of single-use plastic in general. Nevertheless, the reduced use of plastic bags is a small step, among other necessary changes to consumer behaviour, towards minimising the impact of single-use plastics on the environment.
[Note: In Singapore, all non-recyclable waste is incinerated in Waste-to-energy (WTE) incineration plants that convert heat from the combustion process to produce electricity. The ash is buried in an offshore island, Pulau Semakau, which serves as Singapore’s only landfill. Given Singapore’s limited landmass, an area of concern is the speed at which the Semakau landfill is being filled, and where more landfills can be constructed once it runs out of space.]
Other Ways to Reduce Plastic Waste
Innovative solutions that have been proposed to address the problem of single-use plastics include the introduction of eco-friendly alternatives, such as bioplastic bags made of biodegradable cassava or seaweed, to take the place of single-use plastic bags. These are valid proposals that should be further developed by manufacturers as possible alternatives to existing plastic packaging. Waste management systems have to be redesigned to reduce our reliance on plastic bags, be less polluting, and to reduce the volume of non-recycled waste. The consumption of other single-use plastic items, like plastic cups, straws and spoons which come with takeaways, needs to be reduced or eliminated as well. We may do best by tackling each of these issues one at a time – the reduction of waste, sorting out waste, composting organic waste, etc. – and provide consumers with viable and ecologically-friendly alternatives to make these adjustments to their lifestyles at a manageable pace. Some of these lifestyle adjustments, such as to Bring Your Own (BYO) bag or container, have been encouraged by Zero Waste Singapore and backed by supermarkets and retailers which offer small discounts to consumers. The BYO habit is not unlike what had been done before plastic became so cheaply available.
As a child, I remember receiving food deliveries or buying takeout meals stored in a stacked metal tiffin container, called a tingkat. The metal tiffin would be washed and reused for the next day’s delivery. While tingkat deliveries are still available today, many prefer one-off app-enabled deliveries which are packaged in disposable ware. Canteens served drinks out of reusable plastic cups, which we would return for washing. Soft drinks were drunk out of glass bottles that were collected, washed and refilled. But the use of reusable tableware is increasingly uncommon today. For the sake of convenience (e.g. not having to wash the containers), many food businesses use single-use plastic, even for eat-in orders. Tables at food outlets and diners are typically littered with single-use plastic bowls, plates, bottles and cups that are trashed after a single meal. A regular order of bubble tea comes in a plastic cup, usually covered with a plastic liner, and is thrown away after the drink is finished. The idea that plastic, when thrown away, really goes away, is a myth that our fast-moving modern society holds onto. This is emphasised in the powerful documentary, “A Plastic Ocean”, which shows devastating imagery of the effects of plastic on marine life and communities globally. As underscored by director Craig Leeson, “Plastic is wonderful because it is durable and plastic is terrible because it is durable… Almost every piece of plastic ever made is still on the planet in some form or another.” While the every-man can do little about what is already in the oceans in our day-to-day lives, a small change in our personal habits to eliminate single-use plastic can make a difference.
Small Tweaks Can Make a Big Difference
To do my part, I made some small changes to my lifestyle habits. My first step was to stop taking plastic bags at the supermarkets. Instead, I carry my groceries in my backpack or in a foldable shopping bag, which folds into a small pouch (it helps that the shopping bag is cute). If I forget my bag, I would not shop, or only buy one or two things that I can carry in my hands. I use a stainless steel Klean Kanteen bottle for water, which I also use to hold store-bought beverages. To eliminate the use of plastic packaging from takeout meals, I use a lunch box and cutlery that I keep at my work station. The vendor at my usual go-to knows what to do when he sees me with the lunch box. It merely takes me an extra minute to wash the lunch box or bottle after I am done, and I save 20 cents from refusing a takeaway box. Alternatively, you could also choose to eat in at places which use reusable tableware. Refusing single use plastic (e.g. a plastic bag or a straw) is also another way to reduce plastic waste. BYO can be the new (old) norm.
Generating little to no waste is the goal. Many Zero Waste champions like Bea Johnson, Lauren Singer and Ariana of Paris to Go have published many informative and do-able alternatives on their respective blogs. Though I am nowhere close to generating zero waste, I try to refuse, reuse, reduce and recycle whenever possible (unfortunately, I still buy pasta and cereal packaged in plastic or paper, and soy milk in Tetra Paks). I also keep a vermicomposting bin to manage my organic waste. In testing out lifestyle changes to reduce my reliance on plastic, I often ask, “How did humankind manage to (insert activity) without plastic before?”. Life was less convenient than it is now, but alternatives in the form of less environmentally-harmful materials (such as paper and cloth) exist. Instead of ignoring the problem of single-use plastic, we should not forget that we have the freedom to choose what we consume and that collectively, we can start small in tackling the giant problem of plastic waste.
Georgiana Phua is an artist and educator based in Singapore. Her research focuses on art and ecology.