MPs question Government’s stand on single-use plastics as Parliament passes new sustainability Bill

MPs question Government’s stand on single-use plastics as Parliament passes new sustainability Bill

The issue of single-use plastics was discussed in Parliament on Wednesday (Sep 4), with some Members of Parliament (MP) reiterating a call for plastic bag charges. Ariel Lim reports. 

SINGAPORE: The issue of single-use plastics was discussed in Parliament on Wednesday (Sep 4), with some Members of Parliament (MP) reiterating a call for plastic bag charges. 

This came as MPs debated the Resource Sustainability Bill, which was passed on Wednesday. 

The Bill introduces regulations to reduce food, packaging and electronic waste, as Singapore’s only landfill at Pulau Semakau is expected to run out of space by 2035.

It will be mandatory for large food waste generators to segregate and treat their food waste by 2021.

Producers of regulated electrical and electronic products will be responsible for collecting and recycling e-waste like mobile phones, computers and large appliances through an extended "producer responsibility" framework that will be launched by 2021.

A similar framework for packaging waste will also be introduced. Companies that use packaging, like importers and supermarkets, will be required to submit an annual report on the amount of packaging in their products and their packaging waste reduction plans from 2021.

READ: FairPrice to charge for plastic bags at selected outlets in month-long trial

READ: Singapore to reduce Semakau waste by 30% under first Zero Waste Master Plan

MPs lauded the Bill as a step in the right direction, but some felt that more could be done to tackle the excessive use of single-use plastics.

CALLS FOR PLASTIC BAG CHARGE

Nee Soon GRC MP Lee Bee Wah reiterated the call for a plastic bag charge, pointing out that while the regulations mainly target businesses, individual actions would also make a difference.

“The impact may be insignificant, but I strongly believe that such gestures will make people more conscious of what they do, how many plastic bags they need and such consciousness will have knock-on effects on their daily life and consumption patterns,” she said.

“Certainly, we must stop consuming more than what we need.”

Workers’ Party Non-Constituency MP Daniel Goh agreed that charging for single-use plastics could change mindsets on reducing waste. 

For instance, he pointed to how some cities have made it mandatory for households to buy and only use government-certified garbage bags to dispose of trash, nudging people to think less of convenience and more of its cost, leading to overall reduction in the use of plastic bags.

“It has tremendous educational value that will nudge Singaporeans to change their whole approach to consumption and disposal of waste,” he said, describing single-use plastics as the “epitome of convenience”.

“When we tackle single-use plastics, we are not just tackling the plastic. We are challenging the idea of convenience and undermining its importance.”

Associate Professor Goh added that a “true circular economy” cannot have convenience guiding behaviour.

“This is why I think the Government is mistaken in its reluctance to tackle single-use plastics as such, despite the strong public calls to do it,” he stated. “We don’t have to ban plastic bags to (challenge convenience). We need to nudge smartly.”

READ: Large hotels, malls, caterers will have to segregate food waste from 2024

Another reason why single-use plastics are popular is because it is cheaper than other packaging alternatives, Nominated MP Walter Theseira said, causing manufacturers and businesses to favour them.

“Members of this House will remember when soft drinks were sold in glass bottles. When you finish your drink, the stall owner would collect back the glass bottle and it would be washed and refilled at the factory," he said.

"This practice has ceased because the costs of reuse became too high, compared to the cost of providing single-use plastic or even glass bottles.

“It is really a problem of prices. The goods that we consume, from consumer appliances to bottled drinks to food, have no price attached to reflect the problems their disposal will create.” 

MAJORITY PREFER EDUCATIONAL APPROACH

A recent survey by government feedback unit REACH showed that just 9 per cent of Singaporeans wanted a ban on disposable plastic bags, while another 21 per cent opted for a charge.

The remainder preferred public education to reduce usage, Senior Minister of State for the Environment and Water Resources Amy Khor said in her round-up speech of the debate.

Dr Khor said that Singapore’s approach to single-use plastics should account for “our unique, urbanised, high-rise living context”. 

“Most of the plastic bags that Singaporeans bring home from the shops and supermarkets are not ‘single-use’. We reuse them for other purposes, such as carrying wet items, before eventually using them to bag waste for disposal,” she reiterated.

“This has become a way of life for Singaporeans and ensured that our waste disposal is clean and hygienic.”

READ: 60% of large electrical appliances must be collected for e-waste recycling

READ: Could more be done to reduce plastic packaging waste in Singapore's supermarkets?

Nevertheless, Dr Khor said a citizen’s workgroup will be set up to tackle excessive consumption of single-use plastics in Singapore, even as she applauded a move by NTUC FairPrice to charge for plastic bags at seven outlets in a month-long trial starting Sep 16.

Dr Khor urged people to support the trial and encouraged major supermarket companies like Dairy Farm - which runs Cold Storage supermarkets - Sheng Siong and Prime “to do their part”, as the insights could inform recommendations made by the workgroup.

A "SINGLE STAND" ON PLASTIC BAG CHARGES

But raising a clarification to Dr Khor’s speech, Nee Soon GRC MP Louis Ng asked the Government for a “single stand” on whether it supports a plastic bag charge.

“We just said that we support NTUC FairPrice for introducing the plastic bag charge, but at the same time we keep giving reasons why it is not going to work,” he said.

Mr Ng raised the example of the United Kingdom, which saw an 80 per cent decline in the use of plastic bags after it introduced a plastic bag charge.

“They also use plastic bags to bag their trash, so it’s similar to Singapore,” he added. “I don’t think we can keep using that argument.” 

Dr Khor responded that Singaporeans have differing views on the issue of single-use plastics and whether to charge for plastic bags. 

“I have also given you in detail the various reasons why our context is unique. So, it is not an excuse that you don’t want to charge for plastic bags because people are using it. These are views from the ground,” she stressed.

“We are equally concerned, so we want to form this workgroup, bringing people from diverse backgrounds and views together. Let us work together and come to an inclusive solution on the way forward.”

Source: CNA/hw(gs)

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