Majority of shoppers do not mind paying up to 10 cents per shopping bag according to a survey conducted to tackle problems related to free plastic bag issue in Singapore. Prerna Shah reports.
Singapore, 30 September 2016. The recent Recommendation Paper on the Implementation of Plastic Bag Charge in Singapore has spurred a renewed interest in this long-standing debate.
The results of a public survey suggest that majority of the shoppers would reduce the number of plastic bags they take from the supermarkets (65%) or bring their own reusable bags (58%) if there is a 10 cent charge for each plastic bag from the supermarkets. Further, close to 45% of the shoppers feel that this charge would not add to their financial burden with a hefty 82% quoting a reasonable amount to be 5 or 10 cents.
Non-profit Zero Waste SG conducted this survey from July to September 2016 and thereafter published the recommendation paper to help Singapore transition towards zero waste.
The problem is evident from a position paper published by the Singapore Environment Council (SEC) in 2013 that revealed a startling fact: Singaporeans use a staggering volume of three billion plastic bags every year.
The ill-effects of excessive plastic usage leads to any or all of these impacts: littering of bags that entangle in natural environments and choke drains, pollution of plastic chemicals from degrading plastics in the waterways that harm aquatic life, wastage of non-renewable oil resources as well as increased carbon dioxide emissions during production and delivery of plastic bags, toxic gases from the burning of plastics and more.
The SEC paper found that although most households reuse plastic bags to dispose waste into the rubbish chutes, Singaporeans still use plastic bags in excess of their need for waste disposal. Nearly a third of the polled respondents indicated that they “waste all or some of the plastic bags given out for free at supermarkets”. Further, shoppers opt for plastic bags because of impromptu or unplanned visits but the number one reason was simply the availability of free bags in supermarkets.
“The Government has introduced a few campaigns over the past 10 years so I think that has helped build awareness of plastic bags but their approach is to encourage people to use less. If it's just voluntary and encouragement, we don't really see an impact of reducing plastic bags,” said Eugene Tay, executive director of Zero Waste SG.
Plastic Curbs Elsewhere
The practice of imposing a plastic bag levy, or in some cases a ban altogether, is not new. In countries like Ireland the levy 15 cents (0.23 SGD) was first introduced in 2002 and it led to a subsequent decline by a whopping 94%. In 2001, Taiwan instituted a 3 cent fee (0.13SGD) and reduced single-use plastic bag usage by 69%.
More recently in October 2015, England introduced a 5p charge (0.88 SGD) that has led to plastic bag usage plummeting by 85% with the number of plastic bags handed to seven main supermarkets reducing from 7 billion to a little more than 500 million in just the first six months.
In a more conscientious effort, Seychelles imposed a ban on plastic bags, plates and cutlery last week to take effect from January 2017 while ensuring that such items are not found even in store shelves after six months of the law coming into force. With countries around the world taking such strict measures to manage their waste, it is high time a resource-constrained nation like Singapore takes a leaf from their book and takes decisive action in this direction.
Levy Proposed for Singapore
The Recommendation Paper proposes a mandatory plastic bag charge scheme to be rolled out in two phases targeting first the major supermarkets and chain stores followed by small retailers, hawker centers and small-and-medium-enterprises (SMEs). The amount of charge is fixed at 10 cents for big bags and 5 cents for small ones, with exemptions on unpackaged food, frozen or chilled food and prescription medicines owing to hygiene and safety concerns.
The paper recommends subsidies and free reusable bags to be provided to low-income households. On the question of the charge, some feel that 10 cents per plastic bag is too low to have the desired effect.
Professor Euston Quah who lectures on Environmental Economics at Nanyang Technological University said in an interview with Channel News Asia: “I do think the reduction in plastic bag use is very minimal if the charge is so low. Besides, stores would want to make the ease of shopping for consumers and will be very reluctant to implement a charge. If they do, they can return the cost in the form of other benefits to consumers.”
"But a small charge is also good to tell all consumers that through their use of plastic bags, the environment is harmed,” he said.
Further Recommendations for Plastic Bag Use in Singapore
Going further, the paper recommends that the proceeds collected must either be donated directly to environmental NGOs or returned back to the government for funding environmental projects. Further, it stresses the need for public and industry consultations before the introduction of the plastic bag charge.
It also emphasises the need for sustained education and engagement campaigns to help people understand the need for this charge. However, beyond education, new laws might be needed.
"I would also recommend setting up a committee to explore the need for plastic bag legislation," said Eugene Tay to Gaia Discovery.
While it is still too soon to ascertain the government’s intent in taking this forward, it seems the consumers are, by and large, ready to ingest a minor dent in their future expenses as an attempt to curb excessive plastic bag consumption in Singapore.
Let us know what you think of this issue by leaving a comment at the end of this article.
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Gaia Discovery Update
Following Zero Waste SG's Plastic Bag Charge Recommendation Paper, in a parliamentary Q&A session with Dr. Amy Khor, Senior Minister of State for the Environment and Water Resources, the question of imposing the charge at supermarkets was raised.
Dr. Khor on 9 November 2016 highlighted Singapore’s unique circumstances which she believes are quite different from many other countries. “Together with the municipal waste, the plastic bags which are thrown away are actually incinerated and not directly landfilled. So concerns, for instance, regarding the non-biodegradability of plastic bags, which is really the key reason used to justify a levy on plastic bags in many other countries, is not applicable in our context,” she said. Moreover, she pointed out that a large majority of Singaporean households’ generally re-used plastic bags to dispose of waste in a hygienic manner.
Although many are supportive of the fee levy, citing for instance, the excessive use of plastic bags and successful implementation in other countries, Dr. Khor expressed concerns over the arguments put forth. “Will there be unintended consequences, such as the substitution of plastic bags with paper bags or even wastage of re-usable bags? Additionally, how can sufficient educational and enforcement measures be put in place to complement the charge and reduce demand for plastic bags by shoppers?” she asks.
Read the full reply by Dr. Amy Khor to a parliamentary question on the need to impose a charge on plastic bags in supermarkets on 9 November 2016.