Commentary: Recycling makes you feel less guilty but doesn’t change how huge our plastic problem is
Singapore’s focus should be on reducing recycling needs and prioritising efforts that encourage a less consumerist lifestyle to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, says Singapore Institute of Technology’s Assistant Professor Seck Tan.
SINGAPORE: Plastic products are heavily used in Singapore.
A study by the Singapore Environment Council last year found that Singaporeans use at least 1.76 billion plastic bottles, bags and other disposable items yearly, of which only less than 20 per cent are recycled. The rest becomes discarded trash, left to burn or be put in landfills.
Worldwide, humans have created over 9.2 billion tonnes of plastic since the 1950s, scientists revealed in 2017, and only 25 per cent were recycled.
The popularity of plastic stems from its wide-ranging functions that satisfy consumer needs.
It is relatively inexpensive to produce, but the extraction of finite resources to produce them, whether oil, natural gas or coal, and an undervaluation of its utilisation have sparked discussions aplenty against plastic consumption.
Many staunch environmentalists have discouraged key kinds of plastic use, often citing the environmental issues it creates, and experts too have warned of the adverse effects plastic has on the ocean.
An effort to prevent further degradation of the environment and the ocean, recycling is not a bad option. But this is missing the forest for the trees.
Recycling plastic might slow the rate of environmental degradation, but a more effective approach is for each and every one of us to rethink our lifestyles and abstain from the use of plastics, particularly disposables.
The process of sorting out recyclable plastics from contaminated plastics that cannot be recycled is cumbersome and labour-intensive. Recycling is also done overseas.
Singapore exports almost 42,000 tonnes of plastic waste to countries including Malaysia, Vietnam and Indonesia in 2016, according to the latest United Nations trade data.
The destruction plastic wrecks on the environment from its process of extraction, production, consumption, to the end of its lifespan – is serious enough to warrant us to embrace a plastic-light lifestyle, if not a plastic-free one.
As responsible consumers, there are choices that can meet the same need. Unfortunately, the convenience and low cost of using disposable plastics, as well as a habit of using plastics for many decades now have ingrained a certain psyche in most of us.
THE OCEAN NEEDS PROTECTION
The consumption of plastics depletes a finite resource and doubles the emission of greenhouse gases.
Crude oil, a fossil fuel, is a key ingredient for producing different kinds of plastics, from the extremely durable to the malleable, and its distillation consumes energy and adds to greenhouse emissions.
At the end of its shelf life, plastics do not degrade completely. Even though large pieces can be broken down to smaller plastics, microplastic debris are easily swept into the sea where they remain in perpetuity.
This degrades the ocean and compromises its sink function – which is critical in absorbing emissions from economic activities. It is likely that no part of the ocean has been left untouched by plastic pollution.
Although plastic in Singapore is usually burnt and left in landfills, and might not find its way into the ocean, this is not the case elsewhere. Scientists from the non-profit advocacy group 5 Gyres reported in 2014, that the world’s ocean is infested with an estimate of 5.24 trillion pieces of plastic.
The ocean is a precious environmental resource, but the invasion of the marine habitat not only disrupts our global natural ecosystem, but also kills wildlife. Just last month, 40 kg of plastic trash was found in a stomach of a dead whale that was washed ashore in the Philippines.
MAKE PLASTIC LESS ACCESSIBLE
Plastics have seeped into every penetrable space possible. Admittedly, it is impossible to abstain from plastics, though, its use can be averted.
For instance, if plastic bags are made inaccessible, people may rethink consumption patterns. Adding a price tag to use plastic bags could coerce consumers to consider trade-offs and bear the cost of convenience.
Singapore can draw inspiration from the Netherlands – the Dutch government has, since January 2016, banned free plastic bags, and made it compulsory for consumers to be charged about 0.25 euros (S$0.38) for each. The country saw some 71 per cent drop in plastic bag use. This shows that price signals and jolting do influence behaviours.
The Carbon Pricing Act (CPA) which came into effect this year may lead to producers charging a premium for plastics-related product.
Increasing the price of plastic products could make businesses choose less plastic, but it does not equate to no pollution, nor will it reduce the accumulated carbon load. Some businesses would still choose to sell products with elaborate plastic packaging to satisfy the “consumerist culture”.
Further, elements of cleanliness and safety play a significant role in influencing societal affinity to plastics. Simple paper packaging, although kinder to the environment, may be costlier and could hurt their businesses.
Policies should aim to advance the uptake of environmentally friendly products and encourage businesses to use recycled materials instead of pristine plastic. Producers should be incentivised to meet consumers’ demand for minimal, functional and eco-friendly packaging.
There is a need for an emphasis on close-loop values to minimise wastages but at some point, we must foster an understanding that waste can be feedstock.
With technological advancements, innovative bio-based plastics and eco-friendly plastics have been developed and employed. The use of these materials can help to minimise waste and make progress towards a circular economy where used plastic becomes feedstock.
READ: Why recycling, less single-use plastics are not the answers to our plastic scourge, a commentary
IT’S NOT JUST ABOUT RECYCLING
Plastic contamination did not occur overnight nor will it diminish overnight. Deliberations should not fixate on recycling. On the contrary, it should stress on how plastics enter our environment.
Societal thought leaders can spearhead capacity-building through intellectual platforms such as the International Conference on Plastics in the Marine Environment, which last year saw international experts gather in Singapore to discuss issue of plastic debris in the marine environment, and initiatives like the Blue Economy - which promotes sustainable use of ocean resources in economic growth - and the Blue Plan.
The latter had proposed recommendations, in a gathering of more than 100 environmentalists, on ways to better protect the marine ecosystem in Singapore.
While Singapore has made huge strides in instilling public awareness and engagement as well as encouraging recycling with initiatives such as the National Recycling Programme, and the provision of recycling bins to all HDB blocks and landed homes, it’s worth looking beyond recycling.
After all, apart from the energy needed to sort and recycle plastics, the reality is that, 40 per cent of the load collected from blue recycling bins in Singapore are tainted – and these tainted recyclables have likely end up in the incinerator. So, it is not just about recycling.
Plastics are damaging. Recycling and segregation of plastic is an extremely wasteful effort. So what then can be done?
OUR BADLY NEEDED RE-EDUCATION
While making plastic inaccessible or promoting more use of eco-friendly packaging can help reduce plastic use, these are unfortunately short term remedies. Long-term solution requires education, or more so, re-education – to increase societal awareness.
There is a need to re-educate society to appreciate and conserve our environment.
Consumers need to be more plastic-conscious so that their actions become less intrusive to the environment. Producers should prioritise consumer-centric design packaging that is minimal, functional, and if possible, plastic-free.
For now, we can’t wipe away all the plastic that we have, but a business credit system towards good environmental behaviour can be imposed.
If society can be re-educated and informed, they can alter old habits and change their lifestyles to wean off plastics.
Moving away from a consumerist culture may gain traction if we can first recognise the ills of being a plastic-dependent society. This will need moral suasion and a steadfast environmental stewardship.
As individuals, we must recognise that using plastics is an irrational choice that compromises not just our well-being but our children’s future. So we have to start now and adopt a mantra to minimise plastic use, not just waste.
Societal attitude is the chief suspect behind our plastic waste problem – so recycling clearly cannot be the solution.
Seck Tan is assistant professor at Singapore Institute of Technology. Seck’s research focus is on sustainable development, environmental economics, resource management, and valuation of environmental goods and services. He was also among the panel of experts who spoke at the International Conference on Plastics in the Marine Environment (ICPME) in December 2018.