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The Big Read: As countries wage war on plastics, the jury's still out on how best to tackle the problem

SINGAPORE — In Rwanda, being caught with a plastic bag is a crime. The African nation is so serious about tackling the global plastic pollution crisis that since a decade ago, it is illegal to import, produce, use or sell plastic bags and plastic packaging except for specific industries such as healthcare and pharmaceuticals.

In this war to save the environment, it would seem that plastics are the scourge of the Earth. As to how to wage the battles, however, the jury is still out.

In this war to save the environment, it would seem that plastics are the scourge of the Earth. As to how to wage the battles, however, the jury is still out.

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SINGAPORE — In Rwanda, being caught with a plastic bag is a crime. The African nation is so serious about tackling the global plastic pollution crisis that since a decade ago, it is illegal to import, produce, use or sell plastic bags and plastic packaging except for specific industries such as healthcare and pharmaceuticals.

Those caught carrying illegal plastic are liable to be fined, jailed or forced to make public confessions, the New York Times reported last year. In 2017, another African nation, Kenya, also enacted a law to punish anyone making, selling or importing plastic bags with as much as four years in jail or a US$19,000 (S$26,140) fine.

While their measures to combat plastic pollution are not as drastic compared to Rwanda or Kenya, more than 40 countries the world over including China, the United Kingdom, Australia and Malaysia have banned, restricted or taxed the use of single-use plastics. The European Union (EU) is planning to enact a ban on such use among its member countries by 2021.

Meanwhile, Singapore has so far not gone down that path. Nevertheless, several policies have been put in place to tackle plastic waste such as the Singapore Packaging Agreement. The Republic is also looking to introduce an Extended Producer Responsibility framework to hold organisations accountable for the collection and proper treatment of electronic waste.

There have been ground-up efforts in the Republic as well: For example, on Wednesday (Dec 12), four major supermarket chains announced that they will be working with the Singapore Environment Council (SEC) and DBS Bank to encourage customers to take fewer single-use plastic bags and opt for reusable bags instead.

According to the World Economic Forum (WEF), plastic production around the world saw a dramatic increase from 15 million tonnes in 1964 to 311 million tonnes in 2014. The number is expected to double again over the next 20 years.

The polymers, which can take up to 400 years to decompose, have been blamed for the negative impact they have had on the global environmental landscape, such as making their way into the stomachs of whales and seabirds, and polluting the oceans.

In this war to save the environment, it would seem that plastics are the scourge of the Earth.

As to how to wage the battles, however, the jury is still out. Do punitive measures against the use of single-use plastics address the root causes? Or are they merely attempts by governments or corporations at “greenwashing”" — in other words, to appear to limit the environmental impact without actually doing so?  

Singapore Institute of Technology assistant professor Seck Tan, for one, believes that the real culprit is a global economy “pursuing growth and development”.

“Consumers and producers are in an intricate relationship… Consumers purchase what producers manufacture, and producers manufacture to meet the needs of consumers,” said Prof Tan, whose research focus is on environmental economics.

“An economy is an aggregation of humans — with intellect and knowledge, humans can dictate a moderate pace of growth,” he told TODAY.

While consumers need to be on the frontline, Professor Suresh Valiyaveettil, a chemist from the National University of Singapore, said that if public mindset and behaviour do not change, governments have to intervene by enacting laws against the use of single-use plastics, for instance.

Mr Kim Stengert, chief of strategic communication and external relations at the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) Singapore, reiterated that "long-lasting change at scale is always driven by regulation and good policy interventions". But he warned against an outright ban on single-use plastics, which could trigger consumer outcry or see companies turning to alternatives which could harm the environment as well.


Asst Prof Tan, Prof Suresh and Mr Stengert were among the experts who spoke at the International Conference on Plastics in the Marine Environment (ICPME), which was held from Dec 5 to 7.

The conference saw international experts gather in the Republic to discuss the issue of plastic debris in the marine environment.

Even if a company’s decision to ban the use of straws is just an attempt at greenwashing, there is still a positive outcome, the experts noted.

Using Singapore’s population size of 5.8 million people as an example, Prof Suresh, whose research focus includes materials for environmental applications, said: “If we can just reduce the use of a single plastic straw per person per day… we can keep a huge amount of plastics away from the environment. The same is the case with plastic bags.”

The widespread use of plastics was said to have started in the 1960s after high-density polyethylene was invented.

Due to plastics’ low cost, it soon became acceptable to throw away these highly durable products, said a British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) report. Consequently, the throwaway culture led to its effects being felt on the environment.

The SEC, in a position paper released in August, noted that the global production of plastics had surged over the past 50 years.

And based on its figures, Singapore today is a nation heavily dependent on single-use plastics.

Singapore is heavily dependent on single-use plastics. Infographic: Singapore Environment Council

The SEC’s study showed that people here use at least 1.76 billion plastic items each year: 820 million plastic bags from supermarkets, 467 million PET bottles and 473 million plastic disposable items.

Simply put, these figures mean a person in Singapore would be using at least one to three disposable items per week. Ditto with PET bottles.

While the environment council found that plastic bags are regularly re-used by Singaporeans, other single-use plastics such as stirrers have a lifespan of just 10 seconds, or five minutes in the case of straws.

A 2016 WEF study said that plastics are entering the oceans at the rate of one dump truck every minute. At this pace, it estimates there will be more plastics than fish in the ocean by 2050.

A stranded whale is seen with plastic in his belly in Wakatobi, Southeast Sulawesi, Indonesia. Photo: Reuters

The impact ocean plastic pollution has on marine creatures has been well documented and shared on the virtual sphere – often accompanied with statements of outrage and dismay, and even led to some corporations jumping into action.

The most-cited example is the heartbreaking viral video of sea turtles with straws stuck up their nostrils. Following the video, global coffee roaster and retailer Starbucks announced that it would be banning plastic straws in its stores globally – effectively reducing more than a billion plastic straws per year from their stores. Other corporations soon followed suit.

Even if someone has little interest in the plight of marine creatures, he or she should still be concerned — plastic pollution has a direct impact on humans as well.

Plastic waste in the ocean breaks down over time into tiny particles that range from the size of a grain of rice to something on a microscopic level. These microplastics are easily ingested by a range of marine creatures, including those within the human food chain.

A 2008 study by Dr Mark Browne, an ecotoxicologist at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, discovered that the particles do not always pass harmlessly through the human body. In fact, it found that microplastics can physically damage organs and leach hazardous chemicals that can compromise the body’s immune function and even stymie growth and reproduction.

In landlocked Rwanda, authorities told the New York Times that plastic bags contributed to flooding and prevented crops from growing because plastic bags littering the fields stopped rainwater from penetrating the soil.


Despite the negative environmental impact caused by plastics, they should not be demonised, some experts were quick to point out.  

Professor Richard Lampitt, a visiting researcher from the United Kingdom’s National Oceanography Centre, said recently at a public talk in Singapore on ocean plastic pollution that plastic is a wonderful material, but the problem lies in “how we deal with its end of life”.

“It is inexpensive. It is durable. It is versatile. It is in every part of our life and if we didn’t have 20 to 30 per cent of our cars made out of plastic, then we burn more petrol and end up with more carbon dioxide in our atmosphere,” said the English observational biogeochemist at the Botanic Gardens talk on Dec 7. He was also one of the ICPME’s keynote speakers.

The professor’s remarks mirrored what Dr Amy Khor, Senior Minister of State for the Environment and Water Resources, said in Parliament in October.

“Marine pollution is caused by improper disposal of plastic waste, and not the use of plastics per se,” Dr Khor said in response to an adjournment motion by Nee Soon GRC Member of Parliament Louis Ng to make Singapore a “plastic-lite nation”. Mr Ng had spoken about the  urgent need to tackle the issue of plastic waste which had “reached a turning point”.

While banning single-use plastics outright might seem to be the easiest solution in dealing with plastic waste, Mr Stengert cautioned against the move as it would “obviously frustrate consumers a lot”, and cited Australia as an example.

In July, Australia banned the use of single-use plastic bags at a majority of its supermarkets, sparking a “bag rage”. Irate customers, angry about having to bring their own sacks or pay A$0.15 (S$0.15) for a reusable plastic bag, abused check-out staff and vented on social media.

Was the furore worth it? About five months later, the country’s National Retail Association said that plastic bag consumption went down by 80 per cent.

Prof Tan said: “This is a classic nudge in behavioral science for a short-run win.”

However, he added that “long-run success will require consumers to exercise environmental stewardship”.

Mr Stengert said that a single-use plastic ban will force businesses to come out with an alternative solution, such as paper bags or straws, which may not necessarily be better for the environment.

The authorities in Singapore had said earlier that paper and biodegradable bags may require as much resources to produce as plastic bags and have a similar environmental impact.

Dr Khor, in her parliamentary speech, also noted that the British government estimated that a cotton tote bag must be used 173 times before its greenhouse gas emission impact improves beyond the plastic bags which people use to line their bins.

Prof Suresh suggested that countries considering banning or restricting the use of single-use plastics should emulate what the EU has done: Giving businesses ample time — until 2021 — to find suitable alternatives.

“This period can be used to educate people on the issue and possibly try imposing a levy on such items as well,” he said.

While the Government said in March that it would not impose a charge on plastic bags, Mr Ng had felt that it was still something worth pushing for in his adjournment motion in October.

He told TODAY that unlike a total ban, a levy would provide an ideal middle ground as it gives customers a choice to use the plastic bags if they have to, while encouraging them to bring their own reusable bags at the same time.

A levy also forces the customer to think twice about taking more plastic bags than necessary as it would lead to a bigger grocery bill.

Though it might be a bitter pill to swallow at first, Mr Stengert said the pinch in the wallet can be assuaged if customers know where the money raised by the levy is going to.

He cited a WWF case study which noted that if the money “went to a charitable cause instead of profit for the company”, customers would generally be more accommodating.

“The plastic bag charge is really to shape behaviour,” Mr Ng stressed.


Mr Stengert said that people are already using more resources than the planet can provide, and there is a need to rethink their consumption patterns.

Agreeing, Prof Tan said that as plastics are essentially derived from fossil fuels, “consumption and utilisation of plastics is indirectly depleting a finite resource”.

“Unless we move to circular systems, we will not be able to deal with the needs of the growing global population,” said Mr Stengert.

In theory, adopting a circular economy would remove the dependence on finite resources by recycling old products. Rather than having them destroyed when they have reached the end of their life cycle, these products can be broken down to their base components – such as metals and plastics – to create something new.

The SEC estimated that 95 per cent of plastics globally, valued at around US$120 billion, is discarded after the first use.

“Plastics hold a high economic value and effective recycling ensures we do not lose their value,” said the SEC.

One factor contributing to the worrying state of Singapore’s plastic waste is a low recycling rate.

The SEC put the figure at 6 per cent  in 2017.

In comparison, the SEC said that out of 335 million tonnes of plastic produced globally in 2016, only 9 per cent was recycled.

However, there are multiple obstacles hindering the successful adoption of a circular economy.

Mr Stengert, whose work sees him engaging with companies to act on plastics as they move towards a circular economy, said that one of the obstacles faced by business owners is the cost of recycled materials as feedstock.

Agreeing, Prof Suresh said it is costly to physically sort out different plastic items, and that they cannot be used in certain products due to perceived contamination.

“Contamination in recycled products is a problem — it is a global issue with the existing technologies,” said Prof Suresh. This is mainly because current technologies are unable to separate different polymers and remove all additives, labels and even bottle caps from plastic waste before recycling.


The issue of contamination among Singapore’s recyclables was raised in a recent video by sustainability news site Eco-Business. It showed that people were tossing in clearly non-recyclable items such as mattresses, plants and even soiled diapers into recycling bins.

The site said that as a result, 40 per cent of the items received at recycling facilities here are not recycled due to contamination, which could be caused by various factors.

The SEC study shed some light as to why many Singaporeans had yet to get their recycling right.

One key finding from the study was that most respondents, 70 per cent, were not fully aware of what types of plastics could be recycled.

Close to 36 per cent of the respondents also said they found it inconvenient to clean their recyclables, with many indicating that they were unable to remove food and oil contaminants.

While the National Environment Agency (NEA) states that the recyclables should be cleaned when necessary, it does not require them to be done to perfection. However, if this step is not taken, it renders the recyclable obsolete. There is also a chance that it could contaminate otherwise suitable items through leaks and spills.

The location of a recycling bin also determined if a person was likely to recycle a suitable item or not. The SEC said about 21 per cent of the respondents felt that walking down to search for a recycling bin within an HDB estate was not as convenient as just tossing everything into a rubbish chute.

Mr Ng said there is a need to “change the narrative” in how Singapore tackles plastic pollution.

“It sounds very weird, but people need to understand that recycling has become this harmful thing,” he said, adding that because the bulk of contaminated recycled plastics is incinerated, it increases the carbon footprint.  

Prof Tan said that since it is not easy to solve the problem of contamination during the recycling process, government policies should aim to highlight environmental degradation and slow the rate of plastic use.

Mr Ng suggested that Singaporeans should shift their focus instead. For instance, he said, they should refuse single-use plastics where possible. If not, they should reduce the amount of plastics needed and reuse them whenever they could.

Improving social awareness among Singaporeans of the environmental impact of plastic waste will also be helpful, said Prof Suresh.

A spokesperson for Gone Adventurin, a consultancy firm involved in promoting the circular economy in Asia, said reduction of waste through both improved design and consumer awareness is also part of the circular economy model.

The spokesperson said there are many repair, refurbishing and second-hand shops for electronics in Singapore.

While rare, the spokesperson said such shops are now growing in Europe due to “direct efforts” that incentivise these practices.

“Where Singapore can step up is (through) incentives and regulations that encourage reuse, setting of circular targets and monitoring the developments to make this shift (reduction in plastic consumption) happen,” said the spokesperson.

Prof Tan said that public education “as well as (a) little nudging from behavioral science can skew consumption patterns for less plastics”.

“The onus lies with responsible consumption habits and patterns,” he added.

On their part, groups such as ZeroWasteSG and Plastic-Lite Singapore have been conducting outreach programmes to educate the public on the importance of the 3Rs (reduce, reuse, recycle).

Zero-waste grocery stores, Unpackt and Reprovisions, said they have noticed an increase in the number of customers since they opened this year.

While opinions remain divided over punitive government policies against the use of single-use plastics, some firms and academic institutions in Singapore have implemented some form of regulations on their own.

Fast-food outlet Kentucky Fried Chicken has stopped issuing straws, while food delivery company Foodpanda gives customers the option to say no to disposable cutlery.

Both NUS and the Singapore Management University (SMU) have placed a straw ban on their respective campuses, while the Nanyang Technological University (NTU) introduced a levy on plastic bags issued by retailers on campus.


Consumers’ reaction to the initiatives has been mixed. The ban on straws, for example, created unhappiness among some undergraduates.

SMU student Leonard Wong said the straw ban caused some inconvenience for him and his friends when it was first introduced on campus. But six months on, he feels that they have gotten used to it.

Still, the information systems undergraduate said that more thought could have been put into the implementation. “Sometimes we buy packet drinks and we can’t drink it (if we don’t have reusable straws),” he said.

Singaporeans whom TODAY spoke to were generally lukewarm towards a ban or surcharge on the use of single-use plastics.

Madam Ang Kim Hing, 70, said: “If it’s 10 cents a bag and I buy a lot of groceries, I could be adding at least 50 cents to my bill.” She pointed out that it is not as if the bags go to waste as she uses them to dispose her garbage at home.

While she was aware of the push for recycling, the Yew Tee resident noted that there were no conveniently-located recycling bins near her flat.

Data scientist Allan Chua, who has been actively trying to lead a plastic-lite lifestyle with his wife for the past five years, felt that public acceptance of any policy restricting the use of plastics will take some time.

“But we need to get everyone to play their part. We can — by educating people to understand that we shouldn’t always think about ourselves,” said the 31-year-old.

Among those playing their part is Ms Sophia Huang, 33.

She has made it her mission to upcycle — also known as creative reuse — everyday household items into toys for her five-year-old daughter and two-and-a-half-year-old son.

Ms Sophia Huang creatively reuses everyday household items into toys for her two children. Photo: Najeer Yusof/TODAY

Among her creations: A marble track set made out of cardboard rolls; a racing car created with a plastic bottle, straws, bottle caps and a balloon; and a model of the solar system out of a mishmash of materials.

For this festive season, the children’s book author and her daughter created a nativity scene out of toilet rolls and an old box.

For store-bought toys that are given to the children only on special occasions, Ms Huang repairs them when they are spoilt.

Besides serving as a bonding session with her children, she sees it as a way to teach them the value of rejecting a throwaway mindset.

“Now my daughter knows that we can fix things when they are broken, and not just throw them away,” said Ms Huang, who tries to teach other children about upcycling at her school talks.

She added: “When you appreciate nature… you develop an emotional connection and you’ll be more likely to protect it.”

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