SINGAPORE: A stroll around most supermarkets reveals how important plastic seems to be in the sale of fresh food.
Fruit and vegetables are often wrapped in plastic while meat and fish usually comes in a tray encased in clingwrap. There are also usually plenty of plastic bags on hand for those loose items that shoppers select before they're weighed and priced.
Such scenes are repeated at supermarkets around the world.
But questions are starting to be raised about whether more should be done to reduce the reliance of supermarkets on plastic packaging, as the debate extends beyond cutting down on plastic shopping bags.
For instance, Sainsbury’s in the UK recently announced that they will be trialing plastic packaging-free fruit and vegetable aisles in their grocery stores. Two superstores will give customers the option of bringing their own containers or buying a reusable drawstring bag for loose produce.
But experts and industry players think a similar move in Singapore is unlikely.
Professor of environmental economics at Nanyang Technological University Euston Quah believes eliminating plastic packaging completely in supermarkets is not practical and could cause problems elsewhere. “Paper for wrapping can tear easily and hygiene could be compromised.
“Bringing your own bags can also result in contamination, especially when people do not wash their bags often, which is also at the expense of water resources.”
Mr Jonas Kor, director of corporate communications and brand at NTUC FairPrice, told CNA that while the brand remains committed to environmental sustainability, food safety and quality remains a priority.
“To reduce damage and minimise cross-contamination particularly for fresh produce, we use a variety of packaging including cling wrap, foam nets and trays and bags, depending on each type of fruit and vegetable.”
He cited white radish, corn and leafy vegetables as some examples of fresh produce that is typically pre-packaged by suppliers to protect them from damage while in transit, noting that this reduces food waste.
“Nonetheless, where possible, we sell produce ‘loose’, such as hardier fruits like oranges, apples and avocados.”
MP for Nee Soon GRC Louis Ng told CNA that he agrees that there is a hygiene concern in eliminating plastic packaging or plastic bags for fresh produce.
“Unlike a lot of other countries where it’s more temperate, when you bring meat out here, it defrosts and gets a bit sticky in the bag. Same goes for vegetables. I do think we can draw the line there.”
Mr Ng, who called for a surcharge on all single-use bags, except those used for fresh produce, in an adjournment motion in Parliament in October last year, thinks Singapore cannot go completely plastic bag-free, especially for those who stay in HDB estates and use plastic bags to dispose of their waste.
“Unlike other countries where they might not need it, in Singapore, if you don’t use it, that creates a real hygiene concern in our public estates.
Singapore uses about 1.76 billion plastic items each year, according to the Singapore Environment Council’s position paper published in 2018. This includes 820 million plastic bags from supermarkets, 467 million PET bottles and 473 million plastic disposable items.
According to NEA, packaging waste, including plastics, make up about one-third of domestic waste disposed of in Singapore.
Dairy Farm Group, which manages supermarkets Cold Storage and Giant, said it is “constantly looking at ways to reduce single-use plastic waste”, and is working with local government agencies and packaging industry groups to find long-term solutions.
REDUCING EXCESSIVE PACKAGING
Manager of Zero Waste SG Pek Hai Lin said: “We are aware that most foods are imported and packaging can increase the shelf-life of certain food types, but we can reduce excessive packaging of certain items.
“Supermarkets might have more information on how much packaging is needed to increase shelf life of food.”
Nonetheless, environmental expert and founder of Plastic-Lite Singapore Aarti Giri thinks local supermarket chains could do more to reduce plastic packaging on fresh produce.
“Better differentiation needs to be made between minimally packaging delicate produce and more robust ones like capsicums and bananas,” she said.
By 2020, businesses will have to report the type and amount of packaging they put into the market to the NEA, and outline their plans for reducing it. This applies to brand owners, manufacturers, importers of packaging and packaged goods, as well as supermarkets with an annual turnover of more than $10 million.
Ms Giri urged local supermarkets to adopt packaging-free aisles for fresh produce and pass on the cost savings from the packaging reduction to consumers, to encourage them towards packaging-free produce.
She outlined two other solutions - alternative biodegradable packaging materials such as banana leaves or bio-plastics, and working closely with suppliers to reduce retail-level packaging.
Mr Kor said FairPrice works closely with its suppliers to maintain the quality of its produce while avoiding excessive packaging when transporting and retailing these products.
MORE CIVIC MINDEDNESS NEEDED
In the past year, several smaller, zero-waste grocery shops like Unpackt and Reprovisions have opened across the island, where customers bring their own containers for a wide variety of groceries. But founders say even they foresee problems in selling packaging-free fresh produce.
Founder of Unpackt Ms Florence Tay said while the initiative may be good for the environment, it may create another set of problems such as food waste.
She ran a short trial selling fresh produce at Unpackt, located in Jalan Kurau, but found that shoppers lacked “civic mindedness” and “were more keen to play with the fresh produce”.
“Some shoppers are not considerate and may poke and rummage through the produce,” adding that large chain supermarkets would have to employ more manpower to man the packaging-free aisles.
Co-founder of Reprovisions Mr Allann Tay agreed that customers are likely to abuse packaging-free fresh produce, because Singaporeans tend to try and pick the nicer looking fruits and vegetables, which may damage others lost in the shuffle.
The store, located in Jurong Point, sells mostly dried foods that are easy to store in bulk. Mr Tay said they have yet to bring in fresh produce due to space constraints, but are looking at a second, bigger location that can provide more product
Mr Tay also pointed out that most of the products sold in supermarkets are packaged by suppliers or manufacturers, making it less practical for supermarkets to enforce packaging-free standards. “There isn’t much brand differentiation once there is no packaging. Supermarkets cater to people who want the branding and packaging, whereas shops like us caters to those who can do without it.”
THE COST OF CONVENIENCE
Prof Quah believes there would be backlash if such measures are implemented because there are “no clear alternatives” to plastic bags and packaging.
He added that most Singaporeans still value plastic packaging and plastic bags for their convenience and multiple uses, and supermarkets must establish “a clear return” for reducing plastic use.
“Supermarkets must offer clear incentives to entice consumers to behave accordingly. There must be a connection that consumers can see, that their efforts are translated to gains other than environmental gains.
“Worse still, consumers might perceive environmental gains coming at their expense, along with cost-savings and higher profits for the supermarkets.”
Instead of cutting out packaging entirely, supermarkets can instead look at where packaging can be reduced, he said. For example, discouraging the purchase of individually packed items.
ALTERNATIVE OPTIONS STILL GROWING
Despite their troubles, zero-waste grocery stores remain positive that Singaporeans are making the shift towards bringing their own bags.
Mr Tay said customer feedback at Reprovisions has been positive.
“We encounter people who are quite open to the concept once they know they are doing something good for the environment and future generations.”
Zero-waste grocery stores are not a new concept, said Ms Tay, who opened Unpackt in May last year.
“We have shopping alternatives in traditional provision stores that still sell food in bulk. The local wet markets are also a good place to look for packaging-free fresh produce.”
Ms Tay noted that shopping package-free takes a lot of discipline and mindfulness.
“Most people are already conscious of the environmental issues. They just need a few more nudges to action.”
However, Ms Giri said while most consumers are aware of the detrimental effects of plastic pollution, not all see the urgency in choosing sustainable options.
“The resistance from shoppers should not be taken as an excuse to prolong a problem. That would be very short-sighted of us and at the expense of the health of our future generations and our biodiversity.
“The urgency to address climate change and enforce mitigating solutions is much akin to that of controlling an on-going infectious epidemic. Efforts need to be relentless and continuous.”