Why Singaporeans need a major wake-up call in 2019
By Evan See
It all happened so fast: first that clip of scientists extracting a plastic straw from a turtle’s nose. Then came metal straws and their cleaning brushes. KFC stopped serving them. The ignominious disgrace of the plastic straw was a highlight of 2018, but so were many other lifestyle changes people started adopting in aid of the environment.
The rise of products and lifestyles intended to create a more sustainable future is encouraging. It’s more and more common to see people using reusable shopping bags, or using the big, blue recycling bins located around housing estates. While these may seem greatly beneficial to the environment, it’s not always the case. Ever seen someone who uses recycling bins but has no qualms about taking an unneeded plastic carrier? What’s going on?
Most of the common mistakes we make can be traced back to two main problems.
The first is prioritising convenience. We find it difficult to break the routine of convenience in our everyday lives. Sure, more people are aware of what they can do to help the environment, but the barrier of inconvenience tends to get in the way of our best intentions. It’s much easier to take away hawker food in a disposable packet rather than carry a reusable container around.
Just take a look at the NUS ‘iReject’ initiative, where F&B outlets were banned from providing plastic straws. Some students responded with anger, citing inconvenience for drinking on the go, or for students with problems like sensitive teeth.
While ‘iReject’ was criticised as a lacklustre attempt to induce a change in habits, we can’t deny that one major obstacle was Singaporeans’ unwillingness to make small life changes in response to a bigger environmental problem. Such movements are an important first step in a larger change of consumer habits that Singapore is sorely lacking.
Not Understanding the Rationale
Another problem is that many lack understanding about what they are doing. It’s common to see people following a trend simply because it’s “eco-friendly”, without knowing exactly why they are eco-friendly.
Ever seen someone use a metal straw with a disposable Starbucks cup? Compared to a plastic straw, a plastic cup has a larger carbon footprint, contributes more to pollution when incinerated and releases more toxic microplastics into the ocean. Why aren’t people using reusable cups instead of reusable straws? Are people unaware of just how harmful other plastics are?
I’ve seen friends spout catchphrases like “save the earth” or “eco-friendly”, while doing decidedly “eco-unfriendly” practices. In fact, the conflation of all things eco-friendly into one giant, well-intentioned practice is very common among Singaporeans. In truth, “eco-friendly” isn’t automatically beneficial without the appropriate understanding.
Take recycling. We think it’s sustainable to use plastic bottles if we recycle, but did you know 30% – 50% of recyclables aren’t recycled due to contamination by food waste? Or that most plastics can only be recycled once, effectively just delaying incineration? It’s far better to not purchase that bottle in the first place.
But even reusable items have their problems. While the use of reusable items reduces waste, the carbon footprint left by their manufacturing, like mining of metals, is far more significant than that of disposables.
This means that your reusable plastic cup has to be used at least 450 times to match the energy it took to manufacture the same number of disposable foam cups. Simply using reusable products occasionally is more harmful than sustainable, but this isn’t something many consider after ordering a 16-pack set of multicoloured metal straws when all you need is one.
Change is Necessary in Singapore
Fact is, Singaporeans are terrible at conservation. We use 820 million plastic bags a year. The entire United Kingdom, with all its 66 million people, uses roughly twice that amount with about 1.75 billion bags. Our household recycling rate has hovered around 20% since 2012. The fact that we have made almost no progress in 6 years is staggering.
What’s worse is we don’t have any legislation in place to tangibly curb the amount of plastic we use. Just google ‘plastic’, and you’ll find reports about plastic bans implemented in different countries. You’ll also see how far behind the rest of the world we are. Last October, the NEA even shut down MP Louis Ng’s appeal for the government to introduce a charge for carrier bags. If our government isn’t doing anything, it has to start with us.
For a start, you can bring a coffee cup along to your favourite café to get your morning fix. Separate household waste into food waste and non-food waste, and only bag the food waste. Shop at the wet market instead of buying pre-packaged food at the supermarket. Don’t gift someone a metal straw if you aren’t sure they will use it regularly.
You may think you aren’t making much difference saving a plastic drink bottle or two when the rest of the country is using 467 million bottles a year. But it’s not about one person doing one small thing alone. It’s about many people doing multiple small things that will make the difference.