SINGAPORE: Eugene Tay has divided opinion, and in recent weeks, the issue has been plastic bags, and the possibility of a plastic bag charge.
A trained environmental engineer, the Executive Director of Zero Waste SG is also Founder and Director of Green Futures Solutions, a sustainability consultancy that helps companies and organisations address environmental challenges and identify green opportunities.
Tay started Zero Waste SG eight years ago and has since then been campaigning against the use of plastics in general, food waste and promoting recycling. In a recent position paper, it recommended that the government make it mandatory for retailers to charge for plastic bags. Tay says he’s not advocating a ban, but a reduction in usage.
He went “On the Record” with Bharati Jagdish about getting Singaporeans on board when it comes to environmental issues, whether he expects the government to act on his recommendations and how he’s taking consumers’ criticisms of his recent proposals.
Eugene Tay: I look at things over a 10-year horizon and if we want to continue the work that we do we basically have to ignore some people in order to focus all our attention and energy on people who are willing to listen, willing to change. It's hard for anyone to change mindsets nowadays because we are so distracted. So it's not easy, but we just have to convince people who are willing to listen. And if we have enough time then we’ll go and convince those who don't want to listen. That's always a challenge.
The main issue is that households are using the bags to bag their refuse. It’s true and we acknowledged in our paper that most households reuse the bags to bag their refuse so that's a given fact but we still find that people have excess bags. Our survey showed that almost 60 per cent of households actually have more than 20 bags just lying around at home and these eventually get thrown away or litter the grounds and seas. So definitely we have more bags than we need to bag our refuse.
In our paper we also mentioned that some plastic bags can be exempted from the charge - for example, plastic bags that are used to carry raw food, chilled or frozen food. So those bags can be free so you can still use those free bags to bag your refuse. And just buy what you need.
Bharati: What made you want to pursue this cause?
Tay: For me it started 20-odd years ago. At that time we didn't really learn about environmental issues in school. It was early days. The first time I came across what we are doing to the environment is through a book called, “Save the Earth”. That was the first time I got into contact with environmental issues, what we are doing to the environment, global warming, deforestation and things like that. So it was like taking the red pill. If you’ve watched “The Matrix”, you know if you take the red pill, you’ll go down the rabbit hole and there's no turning back. From that point onward, I knew I would probably do something related to the environment.
A MODERATE ENVIRONMENTALIST
Bharati: So what is your lifestyle like day-to-day. How green are you?
Tay: I'm still trying my best. I hardly buy stuff because I don’t believe in waste. I mean I don't really shop that much, but if I buy something, I use it for a long time. What I’m wearing today is rather new, probably 3 or 4 years. But I have shirts that are 20 years old and I still wear them. I try to extend the lifespan of things. Recycling and reducing disposables. I guess I'm still trying my best.
I'm more moderate. I take a more balanced approach because I think if you become too extreme, it alienates people. There are activists who take it to extremes. For example, there’s one who has managed to generate so little trash over the last few years that it all fits in a small jar. Some people might think that is the norm for an environmentalist, but it’s not true. You don’t have to jump to that level immediately, and it’s not difficult to start the journey slowly. I want to convince the moderates who are neutral right now to get them to care more about the environment. So sometimes, being extreme turns them away.
Bharati: As far as you know, do other activists actually think of you as too tame?
Tay: Probably, but I guess each group or each individual will have their own stand, so we need all these diverse voices, whether it is extreme, whether it is moderate or whether it is in collaboration with the government or businesses. We need all these different voices and each group plays their own part in moving the environmental movement forward in Singapore.
For me, I am not just looking at individual actions but I am more interested in systematic changes, in how can we implement policies and get the businesses to do things from a systematic point of view. I think for a long time we have been promoting individual actions; some have worked, some have not worked. I think we don't have the time to persuade people one-by-one. I think we need to look at changing the systems, whether it is the government policies, business models.
Bharati: You worked for the National Environment Agency for a while.
Tay: That was a long time ago, my first job.
Bharati: You’ve said government agencies are not moving fast enough in getting consumers and businesses to be more green. Since you’ve worked there before, what do you know about why they’re not moving fast enough?
Tay: The government can do a lot of things but there are also other things that the government can’t move that fast on because they have to take into consideration the different stakeholders, the public, consumers or even businesses. There are a lot of things that the government has to take into consideration before implementing a policy. I can understand the constraints, so when we come up with our recommendations, we try to balance it out, do a proper study, and think about how our recommendations can make sense for Singapore.
Bharati: While you understand the constraints, to what extent was it these constraints that made you not want to continue working at the NEA?
Tay: I guess I wanted to explore different things. I did my Masters and started my own business. I prefer that freedom of doing what I want to do.
SHOULD GOVERNMENT INTERVENE?
Bharati: You have acknowledged the government has constraints and may not be able to move fast; yet over the years you’ve urged the government to take certain steps. For instance, you’ve recommended the government impose a quota on businesses when it comes to the use of plastics. But even after your paper on plastic bags was released, MP Lee Bee Wah, Chairman of the Government Parliamentary Committee for the Environment and Water Resources said that when it comes to plastic bags, it should be the big supermarkets’ duty to carry out this proposal. She said the government should be looking at education, at bigger issues on the environment, not just plastic bags, per se. Considering this, why do you still think that the government could intervene?
Tay: I think the government should always set the direction. The big retailers are just waiting for each other. Because if it is they who introduce the charge first, they worry that their customers will go to their competitors, who don’t charge for bags. They’ve said that they’ll only do it if it is industry-wide. That requires the government to step in and say that it is a regulation. Make it mandatory so that all the big retailers and small retailers have to follow that. The government must set the direction and then the companies will know what to do.
Bharati: We’ll talk more about businesses in a moment. But based on what’s been happening so far and what was said recently, it’s possible that the government would leave it to businesses and not step in. Maybe in the larger scheme of things, the government doesn’t see this as a priority. What do you think?
Tay: I guess for the government maybe the plastic bag issue is not that urgent which requires regulation right now. Maybe it will be down the road. We have a pragmatic government so we do things after consideration, after looking at the economic, environmental and social impacts. There are differences in the priorities or whether it is crucial enough for the government to implement something.
For things like mosquito breeding, there’s (a) massive campaign. But they also have campaigns for things like recycling. So it seems they see it as important, but still not that urgent. When we talk about waste disposal, our current capacity for the incineration plant is sufficient. We also know that the Semakau landfill is going to run out of capacity, but only in 20 years time, so we still have that time period to think of new solutions. So they don’t see it as a very serious problem that needs a very drastic measure now.
No one is going to die because you don't recycle, right? But someone is going to die if you don't take care of mosquitoes or public hygiene. I guess the priorities are different. The concern is there, but when we think (when) we should do it, the point in time will vary.
So today, we probably won't see a lot of drastic action on waste or recycling now, but that doesn't mean that we won’t see that in the future, because as we move closer to the reduction of the lifespan of the landfill, we definitely need more action.
Bharati: You clearly disagree. You think now is the time for more drastic action?
Tay: We are in a transition period where we move to a more sustainable future. How much time do we have before things like climate change hit us bad - scientists have shown that that period is getting shorter before we reach some tipping points, not just for climate change but in terms of the different environmental tipping points. We are probably close to or have even exceeded some tipping points in terms of some material use. So to me personally, of course I hope that it would be faster. I will try my best through the organisation to make things faster, but I'm also a pragmatic environmentalist so I'm realistic.
We have been talking about plastic bag reduction over the past 10 years. We can always do another 10 years of education and voluntary measures. Sure, we can do that all right but will we really see the impact? Or should we look at a measure that's not popular but probably is necessary.
If we look at other countries, of course in the beginning, the residents will complain but the results have been surprisingly good. The UK has reduced plastic bag use by 90 per cent. It shows that a clear and simple rule is what works. If you think too much then of course you cannot reach a decision, but sometimes it is the most simple, clear rule that helps the consumer to understand that there's no two ways about it. The message is bring your own reusable bags. If you need a bag, just take enough but pay 10 cents for it.
MAKING EDUCATION MORE EFFECTIVE
Bharati: A person could use fewer bags as a result of a plastic bag charge, but be completely environmentally unfriendly in other aspects of their lives. So ultimately, how much of a difference would a plastic bag charge really make? Shouldn’t you be focusing on more effective education?
Tay: Definitely it's necessary to continue education. So for plastic bags we know that of course plastics are made from non-renewable sources. When we burn them, they produce carbon emissions. They contribute to the climate change problem. Plastic bags that end up as litter on the streets can accumulate water and cause mosquito breeding, but plastic bags can also end up in our oceans. The annual coastal cleanup in Singapore resulted in almost 15,000 plastic bags being collected from our shores. So both from the perspectives of the use of resources to the waste problem, these are issues we should take care of.
Globally, I think the United Nations mentioned that almost 8 million plastics end up in our oceans annually. And globally, they need to spend about 8 billion dollars just to clear up marine litter, whether it's plastics or other types of stuff. It has an effect on fisheries, effects on tourism and of course, there is the cleanup cost. So there are other environmental costs associated with a free bag. So when we say it's free, it's not actually free. There are other environmental causes to it.
Bharati: Granted, but I’m a captive audience. I will listen to you. But how do you plan to convince the majority of Singaporeans that this is something they should care about and act on? You told me this issue first came up for discussion 10 years ago in Singapore, and it divided opinion then. Today, 10 years later, people are still so divided on this issue. Maybe your organization and all the other environmental NGOs’ efforts to educate the public have not worked. You've failed.
Tay: In a way that's true, but in a way, that's not true too because we have definitely seen more people using their own reusable bags. We did a consumer survey for this paper. During the survey we also looked at whether consumers actually brought their own reusable bags and we found that out of the almost 450 respondents, 15 per cent bring their own reusable bags. That's a small amount but it’s still 15 per cent. If we did not have that campaign 10 years ago, we may not even have that 15 per cent.
Bharati: But this could be due to the efforts of some supermarkets like NTUC and retailers like Ikea.
Tay: Yes. So the Green Rewards Scheme works. But I think NTUC also mentioned that it costs them half a million dollars just to sustain that program. If you look at it in the long term, if you get more retailers on board, some of the smaller retailers may not be able to subsidise the cost. Is it the companies or is it the government who is going to subsidise the cost of giving these incentives? So we are wondering whether it is sustainable in the long run.
We can continue the education and voluntary measures over the next 10 years. But we're not sure if it is that effective. If we look at what is happening around the world now, some countries like UK, HK have shown good results with a plastic bag charge, so why shouldn’t we do it?
Bharati: Sure, but what about the issue I brought up earlier? A person could use fewer bags as a result of a plastic bag charge, but be completely environmentally unfriendly in other aspects of their lives. What are you planning to do as an environmental activist, to make education more effective, since it seems educational efforts have failed? Merely urging the government to impose legislation can’t be all there is to it?
Tay: In terms of education, I think in general there are 2 big problems. One is that the government is too effective. When we throw something away it just disappears as if there is a magic place called “away”. It ends up in our incineration plant or landfill but we don't really see that because the government and the cleaners clean up very fast. We don't actually see the problem.
The second issue is that we import a lot of stuff here in Singapore, so we don't really see what goes into manufacturing things. We look at the price. We look at how nice it is, but we don't look at the backstory. We don't look at how it's being produced, how it's being disposed of. So I think we need to link the whole story of products and materials back to their impact. We need to close the loop.
We don’t have a pay-as-you-throw system. And I understand why. From the government’s point of view, there are different considerations. One big consideration is manpower, so we want to reduce the reliance on foreign manpower. So having a more efficient pneumatic waste disposal system helps to reduce the manpower reliance. But in the long term, if our kids don't really see the waste, or smell the waste, will they want to reduce the waste? I think that is a problem also.
So even if they introduce the pneumatic waste disposal system, we can still remind people. People should be made to visit incineration plants to understand that our waste doesn't go away. There's no magic place, it ends up in our incineration plant. So it's also to show our future generations how waste is being disposed of in Singapore.
Bharati: Questions also continue to be asked whether environmental efforts generally are worth the cost, and this is not just in terms of money, but in terms of the cost to the environment. For instance, recycling also involves processes that can be detrimental to the environment, so is recycling all that it's made out to be? What do you have to say to such things?
Tay: I guess that's why it is important to do a life cycle assessment and I think the waste disposal companies do this. A life cycle assessment looks at the environmental impacts whether it is water, climate, greenhouse gas, energy usage, waste from the production to the final disposal or recycling. We look at the environmental impacts across the whole value chain, and from there we can compare the environmental impacts and say which is better.
It varies country-to-country because of the shipment impacts as well. Even if you look at plastic disposables, there are different alternatives to plastics whether it is paper, bio plastics or some other kinds of new plastics. I'm glad the government has come in and said that they are doing a life cycle assessment of plastic disposables, so they are comparing the environmental impacts of the different materials. So once we have that kind of information then we can sort of recommend what type of alternative is better.
Bharati: In the meantime, while the infrastructure is there, people aren’t really sure what’s worth recycling and what isn’t. Surely, as an NGO this is something you could build awareness about. There’s no need to only depend on government for this.
Tay: Yes. We realise there’s a lack of engagement and we are planning to do something about it. No one is telling you what can or cannot be recycled or what happens to the recyclables. Of course the information is available on the government websites, but that's passive. There's no one who is engaging you on recycling.
What we're trying to do is to directly engage the residents and also tell them what can or cannot be recycled and what happens to the recyclables. Hopefully, we can have some videos showing what is happening at the recycling plant to show that the recyclables in the bin are actually sorted and recycled.
The government started the national recycling program almost 14 years ago, but for myself, even personally, I have not seen the recycling collector over these 14 years. We know that the bin is there but I have not actually seen the recycling collector. There’s no engagement with the recycling collector. This is one of the things we hope to address with our new campaign called: Let’s Recycle Together. We’re hoping to set up something like an education centre in neighbourhoods and a place where residents are engaged when they bring down their recyclables.
I think we are pushing a lot of responsibility back to the schools so the schools now have to educate the people on recycling. They have to educate the kids on mosquitoes. They have to educate the kids on cleanliness, saving water, everything right? How is the child going to cope with all this information? I think we need to have that kind of education in school, but ultimately, it is the parents who need to set the example.
Some kids when they learn in school, they go back home and they tell their parents they should recycle or reduce their use of plastic bags, but the parents say "don't bother” and things like that. If the parent is not setting the example, the children will not develop the habit. They can learn it in school but the formation of the habit has to be done at home.
We also look at food waste. Aside from targeting consumers, we give talks to schools and companies as well. But we are also looking at reaching out to the community. There’s still a big group of people who are not bad people. They just don't understand the connection between what they do and the environmental impact. We just have to tell them how it's related.
MAKING BUSINESSES ACCOUNTABLE
Bharati: Many have not taken well to your call for a mandatory plastic bag charge. Why place the burden on the consumer? I know the idea is to reduce consumer demand so that businesses will change. But can’t you apply more pressure on businesses to take the first step? Experts say businesses have to do more because this is a complex issue involving them and their processes and supply chains. This goes beyond plastic bags. What are you doing to make consumers aware of the complexities of this, the economics and actually dealing with businesses head on?
Tay: Definitely. We can go to the companies, but I guess what we want to do is a more balanced approach. We want companies to be on board and then we want to discuss with them potential solutions so the only way for that to happen is when we are not thinking about it as “us versus them”.
Once you have that mentality, it constrains the trust and the opportunity to work together. So definitely this problem of plastic bags or environmental problems in general are becoming a more complex issue so we need the government, businesses, NGOs and ground action to work together. There needs to be a sense of collaboration.
Bharati: You say the government should set the direction, but also acknowledged that the government might move too slowly. Why not go after the businesses more decisively?
Tay: We can do that but we have limited resources. If we talk to each retailer separately, the same discussion would surface that they are waiting for the other retailers to do the same. We can continue to wait for each other to take the lead or we can ask the government to come in and make it mandatory and then all the retailers will have to do it.
Bharati: What do you think is the likelihood of the government doing this?
Tay: Well, there is always the hope. We can use this paper as a catalyst to spark another debate between the retailers and the government.
Bharati: The plastics industry is a big one and the petroleum industry is also in this chain. They contribute to the economy, to employment. How do you think your agenda will be able to take priority for the government, over the business and economic interests involved here?
Tay: I think the key point is that we are not asking for a ban on plastic bags or any plastic disposables. We are looking at the excessive use or waste of plastic bags or plastic disposables. Will it affect the oil companies a lot? I don't think so, I think we know that oil or petroleum is a non-renewable resource. Studies show that we cannot just burn all the resources we have now if we want to meet the two degrees Celsius cap for climate change.
What we want to see is plastics or oil being used for energy purposes, being used for high- value plastic products, maybe plastic products that are used in the medical industry. I don’t want to see oil being used to produce plastics as a single-use plastic bag that you use for a while and throw away. To me that's a waste of a precious resource right now. We are talking about a carbon-constrained world moving forward. Singapore has a target to reduce emissions by 2030, so the trends are there. We have to reduce our carbon emissions and if we want to keep our oil resources in the ground or use them for a more meaningful purpose, then producing plastic bags that we use for a while doesn't make sense.
Bharati: The government is taking steps in other ways to meet the targets, but how do you hope to convince the government of the other issues you’ve brought up, considering the government also has to look at the underlying economic issues in this case?
Tay: I think it’s still early days. We know that when we want to implement a certain policy, we have to go through a long process of discussing, showing evidence and negotiating.
Businesses - the manufacturers, the oil companies - have to recognize that we are living in a carbon-constrained world. We are in this transition period where we have to move to a more sustainable future.
If your business model is not correct, that means you are still making products that are bad for the environment, but which are cheaper because you have not factored in the externalities of it, it means a cost to the environment. That's why is cheaper. If your business model is still based on selling products that are bad for the environment, then sorry to say, you probably can't compete in the future because the trend is there.
Resources are scarce, so unless the businesses change their business model, it'll be hard for them to sustain over the long run. When you move towards a more sustainable future, companies that are stuck in the old business model of selling things or providing services that are bad for the environment basically will just cease to exist because of their unsustainable business models.
Maybe we seem to be targeting consumers, but at the end we are also targeting the government and the businesses. Most of these things are done behind the scenes, behind closed doors.
Bharati: Doesn’t the public have the right to know though?
Tay: Well, we do speak to them about greener supply chains and the larger businesses are taking steps, but for the smaller ones, it can be a challenge. Over the years, we have recommended that the government provide incentive programmes to help them. Right now, with the plastic bag issue, the businesses say they are concerned whether the charge will affect the lower income families as well. But based on our research, if you need bags to bag your refuse, each household would need 10 bags a week. That's 520 bags a year. If you add a 10-cent charge, that's $52 a year. We're saying that if that's not affordable then maybe some companies or even the government can come in and provide some kind of help.
Bharati: Businesses will be wary of alienating their customers, but government subsidies may cause people to ask if taxpayers should be paying for this. No one, I think, will begrudge a lower income family, but should it be taxpayers’ money that is used for this particular cause?
Tay: In a way, when we don't have these kinds of measures, people keep on throwing away waste, plastic bags. All this ends up being burned in an incineration plant. So the more waste you throw, the more incineration plants we have to build. So the building of incineration plants is also taxpayers’ money, right? So it all boils down to where the money is being allocated. So instead of using money to build better incineration plants, why don’t we use the money to subsidise the lower-income families in being environmentally-friendly, if it's needed. It’s a way of using your resources to prevent the problem from being generated in the first place.
INCREASING THE DEMAND FOR GREENER MATERIALS
Bharati: Going back to your plastic bag charge proposal, in the meantime consumers will be the ones having to pay more for environmentally-unfriendly plastic bags and packaging and the businesses that have factored plastic bags and other forms of packaging into the price of practically all the products they sell reap the benefits. Of course retailers say they will donate the money to charity or causes, but can they be trusted and what about the manufacturers of such environmentally unfriendly materials?
Tay: So the idea is to have them switch to environmentally-friendly materials and the government is studying this.
Bharati: Environmentally-friendly materials cost more too, but some consumers say they’d rather pay more for these than pay for plastic bags. Wouldn’t that make more sense? I know the idea behind things like a plastic bag charge is to reduce the demand to the point that businesses feel the pressure to change. But wouldn’t a possibly more palatable way of achieving your goal be to mandate the use of environmentally-friendly material and get the government or businesses to subside those materials instead?
Tay: Actually, it's a chicken-and-egg thing. Most of the greener alternatives are more expensive because the demand for them is still a bit low. So the manufacturers or the distributors, because of that low demand, cannot bring in a lot of supply. There is no economies of scale so the price is slightly higher.
But I guess over time when there is a higher demand for greener alternatives the prices will definitely come down. How do we create that demand? We can get the consumers to demand or we can ask the government to put in place certain measures that can increase the demand over time. We did a position paper on plastic disposables as well, and one of the recommendations is to ask the government to look at sector measures. They can set targets or measures to reduce plastic disposables for each sector.
This includes subsides and incentives. So we're not saying ban styrofoam overnight. We say phase it out over a 10-20 year period. Every year we will reduce our use by a certain percentage. So that means maybe this year they have to have 1 per cent of their cutlery made from greener alternatives and more and more every year. Increasing the demand for greener alternatives will help bring the cost down. It also gives the retailer time to adjust.
The government could also look more seriously at sustainable procurement. The government, being a big purchaser of goods and services can say they are using paper made from sustainable sources. Once the government starts to do that in all aspects, it would increase the demand for eco-friendly products and that will sort of reduce the cost.
Bharati: As far as you know, at this point, what has the government been doing in this regard?
Tay: They have looked at energy efficient products but probably haven't looked at plastic disposables yet. So one of the things we are trying to do as a follow-up to the paper is to come up with even a list of caterers who provide non-disposables so that they can use these caterers at their events, etc. Companies who are not on this list hopefully will then start to provide these environmentally-friendly options.
The government has said that because of manpower shortages, it’s difficult to do provide non-disposables at hawker centres. So maybe there needs to be an investment in centralised or automated washing areas. We need the government to address these issues from a more holistic point of view. We need that kind of collaboration between government and businesses.
Bharati: Earlier when we were talking about pneumatic waste disposal, you mentioned that there are manpower constraints and this is why maybe a pay-as-you-throw system may not work in Singapore. Are you willing to accept that in certain areas there cannot be any regulations and maybe efforts should just not be made at all?
Tay: There are logistical and infrastructure problems. We have our current rubbish chute system so it will be a bit hard for us to implement that, but I guess that's something to think about in the long run. Also, when it comes to implementation, are we asking the households to bring the waste down to a particular area? Would that be feasible? Or would we see more illegal dumping of waste at the corridor so that they don’t have to pay. I think that's something to look at. I think in the future we will probably think of some solutions. The newer flats have a common chute and one for waste and one for recyclables. So that's one way to get people to separate their waste and their recyclables.
BREAKING OUT OF ENTRENCHED NARRATIVES
Bharati: What you said about illegal dumping of waste – does this happen in other countries that have a pay-as-you-throw system?
Tay: I came back from a visit to the Netherlands this year. I think they face some challenges as well. But the thing is they're willing to accept failure. If they try and it doesn't work then okay. They will just look for another solution. I think they also have a longer history of environmental awareness and education compared to Singapore.
At the end of the day, we just have to try something and see whether it works. If it doesn't work, we have to think of a better solution. Fear of failure - that's why they (companies and the government) are not willing to implement environmentally-friendly initiatives.
We are afraid that it will fail, and consumers will complain or businesses will complain that the policies have failed because we have not met all the requirements.
But I think we should be willing to try something out and if it doesn't work out then okay, we will try something else. It's this sense of willingness to try a policy. If you introduce a plastic bag charge, it might work, it might not work. If it doesn't work, we will just have to tweak it.
The willingness to bow down and admit something may have been a mistake also shows that then we have matured as a society, that we are willing to learn and try something else if that happens.
Just because this thing hasn’t worked for the past 10 years, are we going to assume that it won’t work for the next 10 years? Are we not going to try something new to make it work better? So if our narrative is still saying that our consumers would not want this kind of plastic bag charge, then we are not willing to break out of that narrative.
Forever, we will be just trapped in that narrative that Singaporeans are just too lazy to bring their own reusable bags and things like that. But I think we are willing to change if we need to. It's like bringing up a child. If you think that the child is stupid then you won't put in the resources to give tuition or to groom your child.
But if you think your child has that potential to grow, then you will provide extra tuition. Whether it is good or bad, you will provide resources to help your child grow. It's the same thing.
If you think Singaporeans are just culturally not willing to embrace something good for the environment, then you are trapped in that kind of narrative. But if you think Singaporeans in general can change, are willing to change for the sake of the environment, for the sake of future generations, then you can try something.