SINGAPORE: Shoppers in Singapore take 820 million plastic bags from supermarkets each year – an average of 146 plastic bags for each person, a study commissioned by the Singapore Environment Council (SEC) has found.
These 820 million bags can cover the land area of 126 Gardens by the Bay, and the petroleum used in their production can power 1.9 million car rides across the length of the island and back, the SEC said.
For context, each person in England used 133 plastic bags in 2013, when major supermarkets there gave out more than 7.4 billion bags. This was before large retailers in the UK were required by law in October 2015 to charge for plastic bags they gave out.
The use of single-use plastic bags declined drastically after the charge was introduced, with 2.1 billion bags sold between April 2016 and April 2017, according to the UK government website.
SEC chairman Isabella Huang-Loh said told reporters on Tuesday (Jul 31) that plastic bag usage in Singapore has "quantumly grown" over the years.
"We started three decades ago trying to educate people to go hygienic with plastic bags," she said, referring to campaigns that encouraged the bagging of waste before disposal down the chute.
It went down so well that over time people became too enthusiastic, she added, and they started taking more than what they really needed.
The study, conducted between December 2017 and May 2018, is based on online surveys from 1,003 respondents based in Singapore.
"The results of the study show that there are certain gaps in the plastic ecosystem,” Ms Huang-Loh said.
“Key outcomes must be plastic reduction at every segment of the plastic ecosystem for individuals, businesses, communities, government agencies and statutory boards,” she added, pointing out that the study will help focus public education aimed at reducing plastic use.
The study found that 49 per cent of respondents use three or more plastic bags every time they visit the supermarket, including 14 per cent who use six or more bags on each trip. Only 15 per cent bring their own bags for their shopping.
When it comes to demographics, the elderly are likely to use more plastic bags. Almost a quarter of those aged 60 and above said they take six or more plastic bags per shopping trip, while only 6 per cent bring their own bags. Women were also almost twice as likely to bring a reusable bag as compared to men.
When asked about their preferred use for the plastic bags they have taken, the majority of respondents said they use it to bag and dispose of waste, while 11 per cent said they reuse them. Only 2 per cent said they recycle the bags.
PLASTIC BAG CHARGE?
While the plastic bag charge seems to have worked for the UK, SEC executive director Jen Teo said reducing usage here has to start with education as it will "drive longer term benefits in terms of behavioural change".
"In some of the countries where the charge has been introduced, there has been some reduction in plastic bags for a period of time, but over the longer term the use of plastic bags will then increase," she explained.
For instance, in Taiwan, Ms Huang-Loh said the charge worked very well for the first two years, but usage went up again as people "got used to paying".
"Instead of going so far into draconian measures right now, try reduction first," she added. "Once we ask people to reduce, and once it bottoms out or there's absolutely no way it's going there, then we have to review the whole process."
NTUC FairPrice director of corporate communications and brand Jonas Kor said the supermarket's stance on charging for plastic bags remains unchanged.
"Our stand is very much that charging should come about only with legislation," he said. "But the focus we have is very much public education to get people to be aware of consumption habits."
NEW CAMPAIGNS AGAINST PLASTIC WASTE
With supermarkets holding off on what some environmentalists deem a necessary tax on plastic bags, and the Government preferring alternative approaches to reduction, SEC has announced a new campaign to reduce plastic bags.
The campaign, themed Two is Enough, will encourage consumers to only take two plastic bags on each shopping trip. It will also involve call-to-action measures like training cashiers, consumer education and eco-friendly tips.
SEC will also target specific demographic groups highlighted in the study to make messaging more effective.
For example, the campaign will be conducted in a number of languages to cater to those aged above 60, while SEC will work with reusable bag retailers to come up with "cool-looking bags men can carry in pockets", Ms Huang-Loh said.
Apart from plastic bags, the study also identified another major source of plastic waste. It revealed that 467 million polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottles and 473 million polypropylene (PP) plastic disposables are used in Singapore each year.
This works out to between one and three PET bottles and PP disposable items per person per week. PET bottles are commonly used for drinks, sauces and marinades, while PP disposables include takeaway containers.
To that end, SEC will launch another campaign, themed One Less Plastic, to encourage consumers to use one fewer item in each disposable plastic category, ranging from cutlery to water bottles.
This campaign will involve call-to-action measures like incentives for Bring Your Own (BYO) initiatives and marketing exposure for eco-friendly eateries with sustainable practices.
Both campaigns will be launched online, on social and traditional media, and at points-of-sale starting next month till the end of next year.
SEC is also working with organisations to help educate consumers on reducing plastic waste. Among the first to come on board are NTUC FairPrice and Coca-Cola.
Ms Teo hopes the new campaign will prove more effective than previous BYO campaigns with the introduction of specific targets in the call-to-action.
"We've got to move on to much harder programmes that will really bring a more meaningful drive, not just 'I don't get this this particular day'," Ms Huang-Loh said, referring to once-a-week BYO programmes.
RECYCLING AND DOWNSTREAM INNOVATION
While the campaign's first phase will focus on reducing, its next two phases will target recycling and downstream innovation.
For recycling, SEC will educate consumers on why, what and how to recycle across various channels. As for downstream innovation, SEC will raise awareness on plastic afterlife and support closed-loop ecosystems for plastic recycling.
READ: Why is Singapore's household recycling rate stagnant?
This comes as the study highlighted the reasons behind Singapore's stagnant plastic recycling rate. Based on survey responses, these include inconvenience and not being fully aware of the types of recyclable plastic.
In turn, the study also found that the recycling industry faced challenges like labour constraints, a low demand for recycled goods and lack of investment in automation technology.
This was based on in-depth interviews with nine stakeholders ranging from academia to industry experts.
READ: 'Cannot sell ... so they burn' – what’s next in the uncertain future for plastic waste in Singapore?
The study’s results will be incorporated into a more extensive research report on the use of plastic by consumers and the waste ecosystem in Singapore, which will be made available at the SEC Conference Day on Aug 30.
On that day, SEC will host consumers, businesses and downstream stakeholders like waste companies to build a plastic ecosystem and “discuss and identify a clearer focus”.
“We should take advantage of available innovation or seek new innovation to create a downstream market for recycling plastic in Singapore,” Ms Huang-Loh said, noting new technologies to convert plastic to fuel, and the use of recycled plastic for 3D printing.
“We need to address extended producers’ responsibility at the upstream too.”