SINGAPORE: Each Chinese New Year season, banks, retailers, telcos and other organisations will print millions of pretty and fancy hong baos to be given away to their customers.
This has a “significant” and “tremendous impact” on the environment, said Mr Liow Chean Siang, head of environmental certifications at Singapore Environment Council (SEC).
While it could not provide Singapore-specific numbers, the council noted that according to a 2017 study, 320 million new red packets are produced in Hong Kong every year. This translates to an estimated 16,300 trees cut down to make them.
In Singapore, tonnes of red packets are discarded following the Chinese New Year holidays as most people would not reuse them.
But in recent years, more are being recycled. Tay Paper Recycling said it received 4,000 kg of red packets for recycling in 2019, quadruple that of 2018. This year, it expects to receive about 8,000 kg of red packets.
The company chalks this up to more specialised red packet recycling initiatives, such as collection boxes outside banks, which “really have taken off” in 2019, said a spokesman. These initiatives ensure that the red packets are not only fit for recycling but also delivered to responsible recyclers, he said.
In 2019, DBS set up red packet recycling bins at all DBS and POSB outlets for about a month. This year, the bank plans to have red packet collection boxes at its full-service branches throughout the year.
OCBC will also be collecting used and excess red packets at all branches, and they will then be sent to Tay Paper to be pulped and made into cardboard boxes, said Ms Koh Ching Ching, head of group brand and communications.
UOB will work with an international upcycling firm to convert the red packets collected from 20 branches islandwide to turn them into functional furniture, which will be donated to charity, said a spokesperson.
There will still be some red packets – about 20 per cent to 30 per cent - which will not be suitable for recycling, said the spokesman for Tay Paper Recycling. "Typically, recyclability needs to be incorporated into product design for it to work,” he added.
Paper mills prefer red packets that are not printed with huge amounts of red ink, gold ink or glitter, said the spokesman. Red packets not made from paper are not recyclable.
“As a whole, any item made up of mixed materials cannot be recycled in a Materials Recovery Facilities and needs to be incinerated. The usage of these extra materials used in the manufacture also requires more resources, thus contributing even further to one’s carbon footprint,” said SEC's Mr Liow.
SHIFT TO DIGITAL TRANSFERS
Even as more red packets are recycled, banks are also scaling down on the number of red packets they print.
According to Ms Koh, OCBC printed 15 per cent fewer red packets this year compared to 2019.
DBS printed 20 per cent fewer red packets this year, said Mr Jeremy Soo, managing director and head of consumer banking group (Singapore). Some 15 million red packets were produced this year, compared to the average of 20 million in previous years.
“Each year we assess the demand for our hong baos and adjust the amount to be printed. While we try to ensure there is little excess every year, we’re also mindful that DBS (and) POSB hong baos are much sought after each year by our customers,” said Mr Soo, adding that the bank has removed the plastic packaging for the red packets to reduce waste.
The banks have also been encouraging Singaporeans to opt for digital transfers or deposits especially over the Chinese New Year season, and according to them, their efforts over the past few years are paying off.
Over S$1.5 million was loaded onto its QR gift cards when this was piloted over the Chinese New Year season in 2019, according to DBS.
Noting that the QR Gift is a “more environmentally friendly option”, Mr Soo said that based on the bank’s calculations, an equivalent of 600 trees in total carbon emissions would be saved if all of its customers reduced their cash withdrawal by 1 per cent.
“By doing away with the need for cash, DBS QR Gift aims to lessen wastage caused by the printing of new notes and presents a more sustainable option to gifting,” he added.
According to Mr Sunny Quek, who heads consumer financial services (Singapore) at OCBC bank, its Pay Anyone mobile app has become more popular especially around Chinese New Year and ‘Li Chun’, which refers to auspicious times for people to deposit money into their bank accounts.
In the two weeks before and after Chinese New Year in 2019, customers performed twice the number of transactions on the app compared to 2018, he said, adding that the bank has encouraged customers to perform digital deposits over the past two years. The amounts transacted also tripled compared to 2018.
SEC’s Mr Liow noted that the demand for physical red packets is unlikely to completely go away, as there will be people “who expect red packets for various reasons”.
For example, this could include children under 12 and Singaporeans above age 70 who do not have mobile phones or are not “sufficiently tech savvy”.
“For greater adoption of e-red packets, shifting the mindsets of businesses and consumers alike to migrate to e-red packets will require gradual yet concerted efforts from both parties. Education on the environmental impact physical red packets create is equally important in mindset and behaviour change,” said Mr Liow.
However, he also noted that e-red packets or e-transfers are gaining popularity among millennials and others on “the cashless bandwagon”.
Adding that this trend has taken root in China, with a 2018 survey indicating that 80 per cent of respondents opted to send digital red packets, he said: “This segment of the community will grow and so will demand for e-red packets in the future.”