Commentary: Dear Singapore, a plastic future is not fantastic
Because plastic poisons our seafood and waters and escalates climate change, moral duty demands we act urgently to eliminate all unnecessary plastic waste and redesign essential usage, says one observer.
SINGAPORE: This August, our world had its early Halloween moment.
Amidst the Hawaiian paradise, rising rockstar scientist Sarah-Jeanne Royer discovered significant methane and ethylene gas emanating from oceanic plastic waste.
Given the sheer and escalating volume of plastic waste generated, this discovery of a previously-unaccounted-for driver of climate change means more severe climate change than even the recent United Nations (UN) Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) update warned of.
The report by our global scientist collective is remarkable for both the unusual candour of our climate experts, and the revelation that the world is headed to an increase of 4 degrees Celsius - a drastic jump from the 1.5 to 2 degrees Celsius that nations and a few corporates with farsighted leadership have been discussing.
Climate repercussions, both direct and indirect, extend beyond the obvious economic sectors. Obviously, a 1.5 degrees Celsius planning parameter versus a 4 degrees Celsius one, drastically alters both top and bottom lines, even before carbon taxes correct for negative externalities.
Fundamentally, rising political pressures globally, fanned by natural disasters and climate upheaval, may see decisive climate action such as carbon pricing introduced globally, possibly even at World Trade Organisation level.
As the IPCC update and other sources indicate, carbon prices will be significantly higher than the softball introductory pricing Singapore is promulgating. This demands a paradigm shift in strategy and processes.
4 degrees Celsius also portent a brave new world where food and water security considerations will dominate. National and corporate strategies must pivot swiftly to a new climate economy.
PLASTICS GONE WILD
The Great Pacific Garbage Patch – the largest plastic accrual zone - is already triple the size of France.
With the sharp projected increase in plastic demand from 320 million tonnes annually, plastics will exceed the current 4 per cent of oil and gas demand, ramping up plastic pollution in the world’s oceans or overrunning our landfills, and escalating carbon emissions that drive climate heating.
Single-use plastic serves an essential purpose in medicine and science, but most other uses can be dramatically eliminated. For instance, who, other than our brethren with physical feeding impediments, needs to use single-use plastic straws?
Single-use plastic has a utility lasting just a few seconds or for some minutes in the case of a tabao meal, but such products linger on – 450 years for plastic bottles and disposable diapers.
Even though Singapore currently incinerates all our trash, we have failed to recognise the role model effect we have on millions of tourists from developing countries, who may wrongly equate plastic with modernity, entrenching frivolous plastic wastage. All their plastic dumped into the ocean, is on our karma too, Singapore.
And with the heaps of plastic trash at Sentosa and East Coast Park, are we certain none gets thrown or blown into the oceans?
OUR WORLD AT THE EDGE; OUR COUNTRY AN ISLAND AMIDST IT ALL
Plastic’s easy allure has hooked the world.
Hence, the European Parliament’s recent decisive vote to ban single-use plastic is important in continuing the global momentum - from states in Australia to businesses both small and large taking action like banning straws - to rein in our global folly and the environmental costs of a moment’s convenience.
The scale of our plastic problem demands a systemic solution to sufficiently rein in its impact. Why should society, taxpayers both direct and indirect, amid rising living costs, be forced to subsidise rich corporates who cannot take care of the trash they generate?
Economic and social injustice aside, these subsidies lead to inflated demand – more plastic trash than necessary.
That said, individual agency – each of our decisions to carry reusable bottles or to only patronise establishments that offer non-plastic options - sends important signals to corporates and governments that people are watching, we care and we will act.
COULD PLASTIC IN OUR FOOD AND WATER HARM US?
Singaporeans are fastidious about cleanliness, so it is intriguing that people assume that plastic containers for tabao food or drink, or straws, are clean. Is that likely if most are unwashed?
Most manufactured goods have stray shavings or other bits of material. Would plastics companies or F&B establishments guarantee their consumer food containers have no loose plastic that would be ingested with food?
Bisphenol A, found in polycarbonate plastics used in containers that store food and beverages and its as-harmful-replacements, are known to have hormonal effects. Combined with plastic leaching in high heat, such as when soup noodles are placed in plastic containers, this could lead to fertility challenges.
More seriously, scientists have found that ocean plastics, in particular those used in plastic bags and bottle caps - absorb toxins. So when ingested by sealife and ultimately us, we are ingesting both plastic and toxins.
Tackling these from a health standpoint alone seems worthwhile.
But we recycle, you say. Indeed, an estimated 10 per cent of global plastic waste was recycled, prior to China’s decision to stop accepting the world’s trash.
We must not use recycling as a moral shield against more effectively and sustainably reducing our plastic footprint or confining consumption to reusable plastic. Because 90 per cent of plastic is not recycled but dumped, recycling is a red herring.
Recent news cast even that recycled 10 per cent in doubt. Greenpeace recently reported finding supposedly to-be-recycled UK plastic in an illegal dump in Malaysia. To justify the time, heart and travel carbon-conscious consumers put into recycling, recyclers should make known their destinations and output.
So, our plastic situation is really What You See Is What You Get. Wanton plastic usage bites back.
THE GOLDEN GREEN LINING
Green is the global growth sector now and going forward, the other being artificial intelligence. The latter is our new electricity transforming industries, just as climate change is indisputably our new reality, upon which all present and future development rests.
From a competitive standpoint, the EU’s leadership in sustainable development lends further impetus and credibility to their circular economy efforts, which could strengthen the leadership some nations, such as Finland, already have in circular design.
Such products are designed thoughtfully, ensuring both quality construction and an end-of-life that effectively sees regeneration into other products.
Singapore should boost our competitive standing in this new climate economy. Several exciting alternatives to plastics exist, from consumer use to packaging, but require refinement and scaling up, so that costs are comparable to or cheaper than plastic, just like cornware dishes and cutlery have been for some years, and distribution networks allow easy consumer access.
The market opportunity is clearly huge for the brave and the good – with the rise of “woke” millennials and the rest of us. Singapore’s industries must leap to stay competitive in the imminent low-carbon paradigm shift.
To pre-empt being flatfooted, a spirit of curiosity and adventure must be nurtured, to provide the product and systems innovation the world needs to live well going forward. Hence, circular design and low-carbon process engineering and service delivery are crucial going forward.
Polymer product designers have typically not considered their products’ end of life impact, until the recent five years. Solutions can come in many forms, and our youth are humanity’s great research and development lab. New Zealand students, for instance, have found a solution to the plastic stickers on our apples and other fruits, from apple waste.
As one of the world’s best educated and hardest working people, if Singaporeans are more aware of the new climate economy and opportunities, more will begin innovating in this direction.
THE GAMEPLAN: RESPONSIBLE CONSUMPTION AND PRODUCTION
Circular economy design, alternative materials gentler on our environment that do not poison our food or drink, combined with conscious consumption, are critical going forward.
Almost 40 per cent of plastics are used for packaging, also the category generating the greatest waste, according to some estimates.
That is why responsible consumption is a key sustainable development goal determined by nations collectively. Let us exercise the fundamental ability of differentiating between needs and wants, minimising the latter, for the greater good.
Behavioural research also shows that the more one has, the more one wants, so mindful consumption actually makes us more human, and less like treadmill rats.
14.5 per cent - over 70 million tonnes of thermoplastics annually - are used in textiles, mostly clothing and carpeting. Greenpeace notes that the average person in 2016 bought 60 per cent more clothing items annually than 15 years ago, and keeps these clothes for shorter.
Responsible consumption is critical in this next 12 years determining our planet’s future. As French President Emmanuel Macron noted, we have no Planet B.
Conscious choice of products minimising packaging – and articulation of such to ensure firms hear consumer signals without noise – is key.
Producers must look at how their products are designed and packaged, or whether the default for, say, dine-in coffee customers, remains takeaway plastic cups, with plastic lids and all. Efforts by establishments in providing straws only for those who genuinely need them, should be applauded.
But organisations should provide solutions proportionate to their resources; large multinational chains with clearly more bargaining power from rentals to procurement to even influencing consumer expectations and behaviour, should do more.
Corporates would do well to avoid greenwashing; replacing plastic straws with lids that contain even more plastic seems counterproductive. Alleged bioplastic grocery bags in land-scarce Singapore, where few have space and time for anything to biodegrade, obfuscates their excessive plastic waste.
At the systemic level in Singapore, for instance, proper crockery and utensils should be de rigueur for those dining at F&B outlets and hawker centres.
They also enhance our dining experience, and will better befit our future UNESCO hawker heritage status. Office pantries could all have cutlery for staff use, and either a cleaner or dishwasher to take care of cleaning.
Hawker centres and food courts – alleged social enterprises or otherwise – should leverage their economies of scale; a dishwasher if well secured would also wash dishes with high quality standards while reducing water usage.
For hawkers suffering the theft of their utensils, our formidable investment in surveillance cameras should start delivering returns, combined with penalties.
For the health of our planet, for our fiduciary duty to humanity, and for our own good health, let’s reduce our plastic footprint by at least half. Our many drops indeed form the ocean. Our destiny is in our hands.
Vivian Claire Liew is CEO of PhilanthropyWorks and World Economic Forum Young Global Leader 2015.