Plastic bags are durable, waterproof, light, flexible, and strong. They are perfect for lugging groceries, as bin liners, even waterproof hats for uncles. But they are choking our planet – and only a few governments are doing anything about it. By Marra Teasdale.
Singapore, 1 August 2013. Estimates of global plastic bag usage have reached 1 trillion per year, which is the equivalent to 1 million being used every minute. Our love affair with plastic bags has reached an all-time high, and we seem to be more dependent on them than ever.
The flip side is that they are lightweight and easily transported by a gust of wind. The sight of them blowing about, getting caught in fences, trees and any other objects in their path is a common sight. The plastic bags littering our landscapes not only pose a threat to our wildlife, they are changing our ecosystems and are an economic burden too with considerable sums spent every year unclogging storm drains, cleaning rainwater drainage and eliminating breeding grounds for mosquitoes.
In 2006, Singapore used approximately 2.5 billion plastic bags, which translates into 1.7 bags per person each day. Many countries from Canada to Bangladesh have resorted to banning or taxing plastic bags to stem the use of what has become a universally recognised “enemy” to the environment.
There is no shortage of success stories. Ireland introduced a plastic bag tax in 2002 that resulted in consumption dropping by more than 90%. In 2009, Hong Kong introduced a plastic bag levy and saw a 90% reduction in usage. Let’s crunch some local numbers…
Based on estimates that each Singaporean uses 1.7 plastic bags a day, or 11.9 per week, if Singapore was to implement a program similar to Ireland and Hong Kong and reduce consumption by 90%, each Singaporean would use 1.2 plastic bags a week. If the average household is 3.51 people (source: Department of Statistics Singapore), that means 4.2 plastic bags being used each week by the average Singaporean household. Enough for the overall average family waste? Surely yes – any more than that and the amount of waste should be questioned.
During the 2012 International Coastal Cleanup (ICC) event 22,933 plastic bags were collected along the coasts of Singapore in just one day, accounting for 13% of all rubbish collected. With this amount of plastic bags littering our coastal areas, it doesn’t take a very active imagination to picture how they must be impacting our coastal eco-systems. So obviously, plenty of bags are not being recycled as garbage containers. They are being thrown into drains, gutters, play areas and overflowing bins.
Campaign? What campaign?
In 2006 retailer surveys showed that consumers were supportive of reduced bag usage, and as a result the (NEA) launched the Bring Your Own Bag Day (BYOBD) campaign in April 2007. The “Why waste plastic bags? Choose reusable bags!” campaign was launched and on the first Wednesday of every month, consumers were encouraged to bring their own plastic or reusable bags. Alternatively they could voluntarily donate 10 cents for each plastic bag they took home.
According to the NEA website, surveys during the monthly BYOBD events revealed that on average 60% of shoppers participated either by bringing their own bags, by buying reusable ones or by making donations when they required plastic bags. Two thirds of consumers surveyed also wanted BYOBD events to be more frequent. In June 2008 the BYOBD events were extended to every Wednesday and the NEA handed the successful program over to the Singapore Environment Council (SEC).
As of March this year details of the BYOBD program could still be found on the NEA and SEC websites, including participating retailers and reasons why plastic bag reduction is important for Singapore; encouraging indeed.
But astonishingly, investigation revealed that the BYOBD campaign was actually discontinued in 2010. NEA staff suggested that the reasons for cancelling this program included a decrease in collections and that the program was no longer self-sustaining. It was also suggested that using voluntary donations and a lack of consumer education promoting the benefits of the program may have contributed to its demise.
Still blowing in the wind
Since the cancellation of the BYOBD in April of 2010, there have been no national plastic bag reduction programs launched by the NEA or the SEC. The SEC says it is still conceptualizing how to begin researching a possible new program, even though it was first mentioned almost two years ago. SEC stressed that a new program to reduce plastic bag usage was still a priority, and that a “formal paper” should be released by the end of this year.
So what is the holdup? There are multiple programs around the world that Singapore could use to leverage experience from, even as the damage to our ecosystems continues.
Currently, measures to reduce single-use plastic bag usage in Singapore are virtually non-existent. Some argue it is not an issue, which requires attention, but with the average Singaporean using 1.7 bags each day, that makes no sense. As the last public opinion surveys were conducted on this issue by the NEA over six years ago, I decided to find out what Singaporeans think about this issue. With the help of six middle school students in February this year, we took to the streets and collected 270 survey responses.
A total of 87% of respondents felt there are too many plastic bags in Singapore with 71% supporting a levy on their use. Singapore residents believe that plastic bags are an issue and that something needs to be done. But despite this, only 19% said they use reusable bags every time they shop. Most simply said they forgot. So it seems there are no significant reasons why consumers do not use reusable bags; instead there is an issue with consumer behaviour. And that has been proven to be manageable, as one responsible retailer has shown, despite the SEC’s slow and seemingly hesitant response.
IKEA is currently leading the fight against excessive use in the Singapore retail space. In April 2007 they stopped giving away plastic bags and charged customers 5 cents for every one purchased. This was considered a bold move as they were the first major retailer in Singapore to charge customers. Prior to the implementation of this program, approximately 6.3 million bags were given out to IKEA consumers every year at their two Singapore locations. In the program’s first year, this dropped dramatically to a mere 960,000 (purchased) plastic bags – a reduction of an astonishing 5.34 million bags in the first year alone, at just two retail outlets in Singapore. And today, the company refuses to supply plastic bags at all. If you don’t take your own bag, then you don’t get one.
According to IKEA’s website, if each family uses one less plastic bag per week, Singapore could save 50 million bags each year. This demonstrates the staggering results that a few assisted changes in consumer behaviour can have. Consumer opinions gathered by current surveys, rates of usage and their high contribution to litter all support the need for Singapore to develop a comprehensive strategy to combat excessive plastic bag usage.
Current programs run by IKEA and NUS show how mandatory fees and consumer education can together be successful. The implementation of a government program which will make consumers stop and think about how their decisions effect the environment will be the first step in facilitating a green consumerism culture in Singapore.
Here’s a quote from the Singapore Green Plan 2012, 2006 Edition: “Every individual, organization and company can make a difference to the environment in the choices and decisions that they make every day.” It’s up to you!
For more info on IKEA’s plan go to: http://www.ikea.com/ms/en_SG/about_ikea/our_responsibility/national_community_involvment/
The National University of Singapore (NUS) has implemented its own plastic bag reduction program. Green Canteens, a subcommittee of Students Against Violation of the Earth (NUSSU SAVE) has implemented a tax on plastic bags given out on NUS campus in 2010. When students, teachers or staff request a plastic bag they are required to drop 10 cents for each plastic bag into a collection box which benefits environmental programs across campus. Since the Green Canteens tax was implemented back in 2010, there has been an 86% reduction in plastic bags used on the NUS campus. It can be done!
For more info on NUS Green Canteens go to: http://bit.ly/12IcIIb
About the Writer
Marra Teasdale is an Environmental and Sustainability professional from Canada who specializes in extended producer responsibility and product stewardship programs.
She is passionate about travelling and has lived and worked in the Czech Republic, Spain, Australia, China, India and is currently based in Singapore.
Marra is a designated Project Manager and recently completed an MSc in Environmental Management from the National University of Singapore. This article was written based on her Masters dissertation.
Contact email: marra127 AT hotmail.com
Photo credit: Royalty-free sources from the internet.