Commentary: What will it take for Singapore to give up plastic?
Moving away from single-use plastic and making clean drinking water available everywhere are two ways we can tackle the scourge of plastic waste here, says one observer.
SINGAPORE: Conscientious businesses and early adopters such as Plain Vanilla, KFC, Deliveroo, Millennium Hotels and IKEA in reducing single-use plastic waste, should be applauded for their courage and leadership, and responsible consumers should shift their business accordingly.
But the scale of our consumerism – leading to more plastic than fishes in our oceans in 2050, and microplastics from disintegrating plastic waste contaminating our water, food chain and us – demands a similarly robust response.
Addressing our plastics problem requires tackling it at its root – the use of plastics, in particular single-use plastic. If we do not want to be nourishing our families with plasticised food and water, or have more sea animals die because we “need” straws to drink, then minimising plastic usage seems logical.
Merely attempting to recycle, amidst this avalanche, is as effective as stopping sea level surges with a wine glass.
Complementing plastic use reduction is circular economy design – worth the investment in producing thoughtful, well-made products that stand the test of time, and potentially a sector of opportunity for Singapore going forward.
China’s decision to stop being the world’s rubbish dump, resulting in our plastic “recycling” simply getting burnt and taking up limited landfill space, should provide further impetus.
Plastic can be essential, in limited and specific situations, such as medical purposes and assisted living for the physically challenged. But the bulk of the 9 billion tonnes of plastic ever created do not stem from essentials.
Rampant and indiscriminate plastic usage does not only injure or kill sea creatures; microplastics taint breast milk with which we nourish babies, and even donor organs. Allowing this to continue could mean plastics rather than AI transforming humans in the future.
IRRESPONSIBLE BUSINESSES MAY BE RESPONSIBLE
The challenge may be more fundamental - do businesses have the right to force society to bear their negative externalities?
Would plastics companies guarantee that microplastics from their products are safe for human or animal consumption?
Privatising profits and socialising costs is a surefire way of escalating the tragedy of the commons.
Encouraging corporate irresponsibility, ensures that the rest of us – government, civil society and responsible businesses – have to invest time and other resources to help corporate babies clean up their own mess. Obviously, this is not sustainable.
There are innovative ways to collect and even liquefy plastic waste, but should society bear this cost?
Beyond plastics, Obike is just one of the more public and recent examples of the pain that corporate irresponsibility could cause.
KFC’s move in particular, seems to have prompted significant attention. Its scale and the siren call of fast food in general, means an estimated “reduction of 17.8 metric tons of single-use plastics in a year”.
McDonald's in contrast, has not extended its UK civil action to replace plastic straws with paper ones to Singapore. If businesses cannot regulate themselves, it may prompt regulatory action ala the EU.
For an advanced nation aware of climate change’s impact, why do we still allow caviar environmental standards to muddle through?
HOMEGROWN COMPANIES RISE TO THE CHALLENGE
Forward-thinking small enterprises such as homegrown Plain Vanilla Bakery are taking responsibility – and even more holistically. Without a huge public relations budget, it is serendipitous that their green policies came up in my newsfeed.
They chose not merely to forego plastic straws completely, but bottled water sales too.
Combined with a decent discount to encourage you to bring your own bag and reduce takeaway waste, they might be seen to have taken on some financial risk – though it is likely to be more than offset in the medium and long term by increased customer goodwill and business.
What heartens me at least as much is its food waste reduction programme, including importantly, redistribution of unsold food to those in need in Singapore.
MOVE THE NEEDLE, GIVE THE PUBLIC SKIN IN THE GAME
The current war on plastic may have stemmed from the injuries or deaths of sea creatures, but the way to move the needle is for the public to understand their skin in the game.
US journal Science notes that 8 million tonnes of plastic are dumped into the earth’s water system per year, with toxic particles ingested by fish and up the food chain.
The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, the largest accumulation of ocean plastic in the world, is only the size of France because the rest have disintegrated. Microplastics taint our food and water; which good parent wants to feed their children with plastic-laced food?
The rising accrual of microplastics and toxins in our bodies should concern policymakers responsible for the well-being of citizens, particularly given Singapore’s imperatives of health, fertility and productivity.
We have other major national priorities that demand mental bandwidth, design thinking and other resources, so I hesitate to recommend an all-out strategy to tackle plastic given our hierarchy of needs. Moreover, the largest part of oceanic plastic waste – fishing nets – does not stem from Singapore. But here are a select few recommendations for thought.
MAKE CLEAN DRINKING WATER AVAILABLE EVERYWHERE
The most important actions our Government can take to mitigate the health risks is a focus on water distillation instead of filtration, as distilled water is free of microplastics.
If micro-filtration to remove microplastics can be deployed at lower costs, that could be a less disruptive and more desirable way of achieving mass microplastic-free water.
Another significant move we should take is to enhance and accelerate plans to have water dispensers publicly available, with at least one in each building, including MRT stations, bus interchanges and malls.
While that is targeted at reducing the need for sugary drinks, the presence of water dispensers reduces the need for the purchase of bottled water, and makes it sensible to carry one’s own.
A Whole-of-Government approach might also see Singaporeans use an app that pinpoints the locations of water dispensers, giving the public assurance of access to drinking water everywhere – a bonus as temperatures soar and keeping hydrated becomes a health imperative.
To encourage Singaporeans to be environmentally conscious, the same app could highlight F&B outlets that have abolished single-use plastic completely.
A challenge is how to compensate current drinks sellers – be it in malls or in hawker centres. Rental rebates commensurate with bottled water sales, and helping them pivot to healthy drinks by enlisting the help of universities or social impact enthusiasts through hackathons for instance may be some ways.
More available fresh juices free of artificial sugar, are likely in Singapore’s health interests and also help raise the profit margins of entrepreneurs versus bottled water.
STOP USING PLASTIC UTENSILS
Protecting our culinary heritage in hawker centres, would seem to dovetail with serving food in actual plates and utensils, rather than plastic ones, which is not known to be heat-stable. Many of us have been concerned with cafes and restaurants serving food in plastic disposables even for dining in.
If this is because of staff costs involved in washing utensils, why not invest in a dishwasher with bulk purchase deals, so that we can have clean utensils that are cheaper in the longer run economically and environmentally?
TACKLE SCOURGE OF PLASTIC USE
There is much that can be done to tackle the scourge of plastic use in our part of the world.
Five Asian countries – China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Thailand - account for 60 per cent of plastic waste leaking into the ocean, according to Ocean Conservancy and the McKinsey Centre for Business and Environment.
Singapore could leverage its ASEAN Chairmanship – in its Year of Climate Action – on evaluating and building the case for the minimising of plastics for our greater good, beyond plastic to climate action overall, and beyond the plastic sector to the entire corporate sector.
Vivian Claire Liew is founding CEO of social enterprise PhilanthropyWorks and a Young Global Leader of the World Economic Forum.