SINGAPORE: As plastic bag charges have proved to be a success in countries such as the United Kingdom and Hong Kong, local environmental group Zero Waste SG is calling for the Government to impose a levy on the use of plastic bags, with major supermarket chains and retailers taking the lead.
The non-governmental organisation made the call in their recommendation paper which was released on Monday (Sep 12). Singapore uses about 2.5 billion plastic bags a year and efforts by the Government to reduce plastic bags consumption have so far been limited, said Mr Eugene Tay, executive director of Zero Waste SG.
“The Government has introduced a few campaigns over the past 10 years so I think that has helped build awareness of plastic bags but their approach is to encourage people to use less. If it's just voluntary and encouragement, we don't really see an impact of reducing plastic bags,” he said.
The group polled about 450 people between July and September this year and found that if a charge was imposed, 65 per cent would reduce the number of plastic bags that they take from the supermarkets while 58 per cent would bring their own reusable bags.
“That’s a positive indication that most consumers are ready for plastic bag charge in Singapore,” said Mr Tay, adding that the group is in talks with the National Environment Agency (NEA). “It's the first step to use the recommendation paper to engage the Government to see if we can explore this further.”
The group proposed charging 10 cents for big plastic bags and 5 cents for small plastic bags, with the scheme to be implemented in two phases. The first phase would cover major supermarket chains and retailers and the second phase would involve smaller retailers, hawkers and small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs).
Plastic bags used for carrying food without packaging, frozen or chilled food and prescription medicines could be exempted from the scheme, the group suggested.
“THERE IS SCOPE TO REDUCE PLASTIC BAG USAGE”: NEA
In a statement to Channel NewsAsia, a spokesperson from NEA said it agrees with Zero Waste SG that there is scope for reducing the number of plastic bags used in Singapore. For example, NEA said many of the households are not using plastic bags to bag their waste.
The agency also noted that the community plays an important role in reducing excessive use of plastic bags.
“NEA is encouraged by ground-up efforts from retailers and environmental groups that urge consumers to use reusable bags and reduce the excessive use of plastic bags,” said the spokesperson.
The spokesperson added that the agency has called a tender for a study on how different types of single-use carriers compare in terms of cost and impact to the environment.
Charging shoppers for plastic bags as a means to reduce the consumption of plastic bags is not uncommon in other countries. In England, for example, a 5 pence charge for plastic bags was introduced in October 2015 and the levy has reduced the usage of plastic bags by more than 85 per cent. Similarly, in 2009, major supermarket chains in Hong Kong were required to charge 50 Hong Kong cents for each plastic bag that was distributed. It was so successful that in 2015, the Hong Kong government extended the scheme to all retailers.
LOCAL RETAILERS SUCCESSFUL IN CUTTING CONSUMPTION
In Singapore, retailers have also been taking initiatives to reduce plastic bags consumption. IKEA Singapore started charging customers 10 cents for each plastic bag in 2007. To further reduce the use of plastic bags, the home furnishing retailer made the bold move of phasing out disposable plastic bags at both of its outlets in 2013. Shoppers can either buy a blue reusable bag from the store or bring their own bags.
“Even though most Singaporeans do not understand the details about the harmful effects of plastic bags, most were generally very accepting. Customers know through their repeated visits that they have to bring their own bags,” said Mr Marcus Tay, Sustainability Manager of IKEA Tampines.
According to its transaction records, about 23 per cent of its customers – equivalent to half a million – included a plastic bag or a blue reusable IKEA bag in their transactions prior to the retailer doing away with plastic bags in 2013. But the figure has since dropped to 18 per cent last year.
“That means the difference is either they brought their own bags or they simply managed with their hands. They do not need to buy bags of any kind,” said Mr Tay. "We are encouraged by this."
Over at NTUC FairPrice, the supermarket chain adopted a different approach – an incentive scheme to encourage customers to use less plastic bags. Its Green Rewards Scheme, launched in 2007, gives customers a 10-cent rebate for bringing their own bags, if they spend a minimum of S$10.
A record number of 10.1 million bags was saved in 2015, 10 per cent higher than 2014, said Mr Koh Kok Sin, chairperson of NTUC FairPrice’s Green Committee. Since the launch of the scheme in 2007, it has given out more than S$2.8 million in rebates, which works out to about 56.6 million plastic bags saved.
While the supermarket chain recognised that imposing a levy may be an effective means to reduce plastic bag usage, mitigation measures should be put in place to help the low-income families, said Mr Koh.
“For the low-income sector, every single cent is needed to feed their families. Considering grocery shopping is a frequent activity for most shoppers … the cost for plastic bags can be sizeable,” he said.
A BALANCED APPROACH
The Singapore Environment Council (SEC) agreed that more can be done to reduce plastic bag consumption in Singapore. But a more balanced approach has to be adopted, said Ms Sharmine Tan, senior executive of environmental outreach at SEC.
“We have to take into consideration two aspects - the social and the economic aspect. In terms of social, it's a matter of whether people of the lower income families can accept it. In terms of economic, if retailers are willing to impose a charge on bags collectively as a whole then it wouldn't be a case where one retailer loses out to another retailer,” she said, adding that education is key to reduce plastic bag consumption.
Mr Tay said education is still necessary, although a plastic bag charge could be more effective.
“We have been doing education for the past 10 years. Do we still want to do another 10 years of voluntary or campaign education? We can do that but would we see the impact? I'm not too sure,” he said.
“The message here is we are not banning plastic bags. What we want is to reduce the excessive usage and wastage of plastic bags.”