The monstrous scale of plastic bag wastage in Singapore
Do Singaporeans know the extent of the resources needed to fuel their plastic bag usage, and the amount of bags that is wasted? Talking Point explores the issue.
SINGAPORE: If each person in Singapore uses 1.6 plastic bags a day, the country would guzzle enough petroleum in a year to drive 8,555 cars round the world.
That is not a hypothetical situation.
It takes 37 million kg of crude oil and 12 million kg of natural gas to produce three billion plastic bags – the amount the Republic was already consuming in a year by 2011.
And the 1.6 bags that comes to per person per day is twice as many as the average Malaysian uses and thrice the figure in Australia.
“A lot of Singaporeans see plastic bag usage as a right, not a privilege,” said Ms Jessica Cheam, the founder of online publication Eco-Business. “The problem is that people take far more bags than they need.”
This issue of wastage came up in Parliament last month when the Government said that imposing a charge or ban on disposable plastic bags and substituting them with other types of disposable bags is unlikely to improve environmental outcomes.
But as Talking Point discovered, people are still shocked when they hear how many plastic bags are being disposed of: About 420 tonnes every day last year, or 2,640 bags every three seconds.
Worldwide, a plastic bag is used, on average, for 12 minutes before being discarded. And this is damaging the environment.
“Many of them just go into the incinerators, and worse, they end up in oceans,” said Ms Cheam.
“If we don’t do anything about it, then there are going to be more plastics than fish in the ocean by 2050.”
While plastic bags have many uses, from carrying groceries to bagging up refuse, they add to the mountain of rubbish Singapore produces.
Last year, 94 per cent of plastic waste was not recycled, and plastic bags are estimated to constitute around a fifth of this.
But even most of the bags sent for recycling are typically discarded. For example, shredding and recycling company Impetus Conceptus ends up recycling about 30 to 40 per cent of the bags it receives because the rest would be contaminated.
“Food contamination, oil contamination, stuff like that,” said its business development director Thomas Wong.
“Once it’s contaminated, we’re not able to do anything else because it deteriorates the quality of the pellets.”
He advises those who want to recycle plastic bags to fold them in old clothing, books or glass containers, which can all be put in the blue recycling bin at every public apartment block and, from August, every condominium block.
Most of all, he urged: “Don’t ask for a plastic bag. Bring your own bag.”
WATCH: Why the waste adds up (2:30)
WASTE IN THE MAKING
To begin with, the production of plastic bags not only requires a huge amount of resources, but also entails wastage in the process.
Over at Union Packaging Industries, which supplies 30 tonnes of bags monthly to retailers in Singapore, about 20 per cent of the plastic resins are wasted because of the adjustments needed in the different stages of manufacturing.
“There’s a lot of manpower and hard work involved (at each stage),” said its director Lam Chun Seng.
With supermarkets holding off on imposing a plastic bag levy, and the government not planning to make them do so, the ball is in the consumer’s court.
In 2013, the Singapore Environment Council found that some 26 per cent of households have more than 20 bags lying around at home. And non-profit organisation Zero Waste SG wants to reduce this kind of “excessive” usage.
While its call for a mandatory charge for plastic bag use has been rebuffed, Zero Waste SG manager Pek Hai Lin hopes that will change in future, even as she stressed that her group is not pushing for a ban.
“The government is dealing with other environmental issues as well: It’s increasing the water price; it’s implementing the carbon tax,” she said.
“So it’s looking at different aspects of responsibility to the environment. And I hope it’ll look at this sooner rather than later.”
Watch this episode of Talking Point here. The programme airs on Channel 5 every Thursday at 9.30pm.