Going plastic-free for a week in Singapore. Dream or reality?
CNA's Matthew Mohan tried to go plastic-free for a week. This is how he fared.
SINGAPORE: Emptying out a bag packed with the plastic I’d used in a week, I was a little shocked and definitely embarrassed.
After all, it had never truly struck me just how much of such waste I generated.
Throughout the week, I tried to live “normally”. This meant behaving exactly as I would have if I wasn’t doing this experiment which served to audit my plastic use, so that I would have a true picture of my wastage.
So, scattered on the table in front of me were plastic spoons, forks, bags, packaging, straws, plates and bottles.
Clearly, I had a lot to work on.
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.
Based on latest figures from the National Environment Agency (NEA), more than 1 million tonnes of plastic waste was generated in Singapore last year. Of this, only 6 per cent was recycled and 944,000 tonnes was disposed of – the most of any form of waste.
To be clear, plastic isn’t the only problem.
Disposables – any items designed for single use before they are thrown away – aren't great for the environment too. Such disposables are often made from plastic but can come from other materials such as paper.
In 2020, about 200,000 tonnes of domestic waste disposed of in Singapore were disposables, according to NEA.
But I had opted to specifically focus on plastic waste, in line with Plastic Free July, a month-long sustainability challenge aimed at curbing use of plastic.
And staring at the mountain in front of me, I realised there was quite a lot for me to improve on.
PLAIN, OLD FORGETFULNESS
One of the biggest reasons that I generated so much plastic waste – plain, old forgetfulness.
Forget to bring a water bottle to the office? Just buy one from the convenience store. Forget to bring a water bottle to the futsal court? Just buy one from a stall vendor. Forget to bring a water bottle while out on assignment? Just buy one from the vending machine.
All these small instances of absentmindedness added up, and resulted in my accumulation of plastic.
To help with my “plastic-free” week, I sought advice from somebody who I figured might be able to help – Ms Melissa Lam, the founder of Bamboo Straw Girl, a local lifestyle store that aims to be as plastic-free and low-impact as possible from production to point of sale.
An environmentalist and sustainability advocate, Ms Lam engages schools, organisations and community groups in the movement against single-use plastics.
Her advice? To prepare a "low waste kit", and adjust as the week goes by.
Rather than buying new things for the kit, I could just use items from home such as reusable cutlery and a water bottle, she suggested.
“You don’t have to go out of your way to buy stuff,” added Ms Lam.
She also stressed the importance of looking at how a zero-waste kit would complement my way of living, rather than purposely carving out opportunities to use the kit.
“A lot of times when people are just getting started, they are very excited to do these things that are associated with being zero waste or going low waste. They prepare their zero-waste kit with their cutlery ... and they want to use it, (so) they purposely create the opportunity to use it,” she said.
“Maybe in your daily life, you don't actually tabao (takeaway) things, you always eat at a coffee shop. In that case, in that case, you don't actually need to prepare your container for example … Adapt to the situation you’re in. A lot of times it is not a one size fits all thing.”
Sustainability advocate Khee Shihui noted that it is human to forget, but what could help is to set yourself up for success.
Ms Khee runs the Instagram account TabaoGirl, which started off as a platform where she would post about her use of reusable containers and cutlery. The account now focuses primarily on the vegetarian lifestyle, but Ms Khee has continued with her habits in pursuing sustainability.
"It's about setting yourself up such that this becomes less of a conscious decision you need to 'take care' of, but you've already set up the process and infrastructure," she said.
"(For example) the takeaway stuff is always in your bag, you have one set in the office. It is less troublesome, so you don't have to worry about it. It is integrated (into your daily life)."
It wasn’t just about being less absent-minded.
There were small behavioral changes I could make which would come at no cost to me, but could drastically reduce my plastic output.
In my case, this would be to cut down on taking away food. As somebody who usually does so two to three times a week, this was a major source of plastic waste, whether it be in the form of takeaway containers, plastic utensils or plastic bags.
While some opt to bring reusable lunchboxes to cut down on their plastic use, I found this inconvenient and decided that rather than buy food to take away, I would eat at the coffee shop or hawker centre whenever possible.
While having a meal alone did take some getting used to at first, this change in behaviour was a major help in cutting my use of plastic in the second week of my experiment.
But I also realised that disposables are still used for dine-in meals at some hawker centres, so it would be useful to bring along my own cutlery.
But at new hawker centres, disposables are not allowed to be used for dine-in meals. This also applies to existing hawker centres that use common crockery and have centralised dishwashing services under the Productive Hawker Centres programme.
At existing hawker centres not under the programme, new stalls are not allowed to provide disposables for dine-in meals.
“It's very easy to … mindlessly use things especially when they come for free,” said Ms Lam. “Nobody really thinks much further about taking something that's provided for free.”
Bringing my own water bottle also had its rewards, as I found out.
A number of establishments around Singapore offer discounts if you bring your own bottle, bag or container. I enjoyed a small discount with my usual iced coffee at a cafe near the office.
But there was one aspect of going plastic-free I’d totally forgotten about – packaging.
It just so happened that the week I tried to go plastic-free was the same week my online orders arrived, with bundles of new clothes wrapped in layers of plastic.
According to WWF Singapore, close to 200,000 parcels are delivered daily in Singapore.
Since most products bought online are packaged with an abundance of plastic, the only way to cut down on waste is to rethink my shopping habits.
Ms Khee said that industrial producers "set the context" of how consumers can behave and have a much bigger impact than individual consumers.
"The reason why we are focusing on individual consumers is in the hope that if there is enough education and awareness that bigger corporates actually set the context of how consumers can behave, then consumers will be more ready and willing and educated to take the conversation back to the corporates," said Ms Khee, who is a social media manager for local boardgame publisher Origame.
"We have to be a little bit clearer that it is not primarily individual action, but everybody else in the value chain of all these transactions has to be responsible for the choices that they offer to the consumers."
UNAVOIDABLE AT TIMES?
But as I found out, plastic waste is unavoidable in some circumstances.
For instance, I could not avoid the little polypropylene containers that my disposable contact lenses come in.
Halfway through my plastic-free week, I contracted dengue fever. The blister packs containing my medication also contained plastic and there was simply no getting around that. The same was true for the COVID-19 test kit that I used.
“In medical settings or for hygiene like contact lens cases, the material is used for a reason,” said Ms Lam. If other materials were used instead, it would drive up costs for consumers, she added.
“If we package things in glass, there could be breakage and that also creates waste,” she said. “It’s not such a simple matter of plastic equals bad.”
As my seven “plastic-free” days drew to a close, I was left with contact lens cases and plastic packaging from various sources. I hadn’t been able to completely eliminate plastic, but I definitely managed to cut down on my use of it.
While some types of plastics are unavoidable, they can be repurposed or recycled. For example, I reused the plastic packaging from my online shopping purchase as a bin liner. There are also local programmes where contact lens blister packs can be recycled.
More importantly, I had formed some good habits – one of which is making sure my water bottle is in my bag before leaving the house, a practice that has stayed with me since.
These habits not only reduced my impact on the environment, but reduced my expenditure on things I didn’t need.
At the end of the day, it is important to have a "clear purpose" when changing one's behaviour, added Ms Khee.
"If somebody is giving me an external push, maybe I might change my behavior for a little while, and if the push disappears, then the behaviour disappears," she said.
"But if you have a very clear purpose on why you are doing this, maybe the behaviour will carry on with you because you see some clear benefits, the purpose makes you happy. It's about being aligned with what you want to get out of this."
And while Plastic Free July may have ended, my journey to reduce consumption and wastage has only just begun.