Road to Sustainability: Are We There Yet? |

by Lydia Tan

In recent years, initiatives promoting eco-friendliness and sustainability have been popping up everywhere in Singapore — from reusable utensils to food waste reduction drives. But take a look around and at ourselves and you’ll find that we are still carrying out non-environmentally-friendly practices in their daily lives. What is preventing these initiatives and movements from becoming more mainstream in our society?

Convenience over consciousness

Despite the media trying to teach us all these tips on how you can make certain changes to your lives to become more eco-friendly, how many of us actually pay heed to them? When we go out and order food and drinks to takeaway, how many of us would take the disposable styrofoam or plastic boxes and cups provided by the stall rather than bringing your own containers that you have to wash later? When you get a drink, you will still see people reach for those single-use straws, sometimes even without thinking.

Despite the media trying to teach us all these tips on how we can make certain changes to our lives to become more eco-friendly, how many of us actually pay heed to them? When we go out and order food to takeaway, how many of us would use the stall’s disposable styrofoam or plastic boxes rather than bringing our own containers that you have to wash later? When you get a drink at the coffeeshop or bubble tea store, you will still see people drinking out of plastic cups and bags with single-use straws.

Most of the time, we do these actions out of convenience, and maybe even habit. It takes an extra step (and maybe some judgemental looks) to request for the auntie to pack your food in your Tupperware container or to ask the drinks uncle to not give you a straw with your drink at the coffeeshop, and most people would rather avoid that and go with tradition.

The laziness concept

According to the 2018 Consumer Plastic and Plastic Resource Ecosystem in Singapore report, about 42% of respondents said that they found it inconvenient to recycle. Food waste has also risen 40% over the past 10 years, from 568,000 tonnes disposed of in 2008 to around 809,800 tonnes in 2017.

Contrast this to Japan, where recycling is taken very seriously; different types of recyclable items have a certain day of the week to be collected and there are specific rules in different precincts on how to separate and pack recyclables that each household follows. In 2017, Germany was the top municipal solid waste recycler in the world, with a “Green Dot” system where manufacturers have to pay for a green dot to put on their recyclable products. This fee varies based on the materials and weight of the product so the less materials used, the less waste produces and the cheaper it is for the producer. So why is Singapore lagging behind?

One reason could be that in Singapore, there are so many easy ways to cop out of being more eco-friendly, and Singaporeans have just become used to this lifestyle. For example, regular bins are more common in malls or on the street so it’s easier to just throw your rubbish in there rather than having to go hunt for a recycling bin. Even when recycling bins are present, people just treat them like any regular bin, resulting in 40% of items thrown inside rendered unrecyclable due to contamination from food and liquid waste. Disposable packaging is also the default free option when shopping or buying food so why go through the extra trouble and cost of asking for no packaging or to bring your own?

The Singaporean mentality is that as long as you do the bare minimum, you are playing your part and it will add up in the long run. If others are doing more, then you can afford to be a bit more lax with your efforts. Compare this attitude to one in Japan, where people take more initiative to clean up after themselves and separate their trash. Singaporeans still have the tendency to rely on cleaners to keep our streets and public spaces clean.

The Price of Going Green

There has been a rise in cafes serving non-plastic straws or going strawless, like Wild Honey and Chasing Dreams Cafe, but these “hipster” cafes are not the most cost-efficient for students. Many brands and startups selling reusable containers and glass or metal straws are also quite costly, with some costing close to $20 or more. As a result, it creates the impression that going green is a very expensive and troublesome lifestyle habit not worth cultivating for the long term.

Why we need change

In recent years, there have been more efforts being made to making Singapore more of a green nation. For example, some F&B outlets are trying to appeal to Singaporeans’ love for discounts by offering small discounts to the bill if patrons bring their own cups or containers. This year — declared the Year Towards Zero Waste — NEA is working with hawker centres and supermarkets to promote a year-long drive for their Love Your Food outreach programme, encouraging Singaporeans to only order what they can finish to reduce food wastage.

One thing Singapore is lacking in is regulations on plastic use and we do not have our own recycling plant; our recyclables are instead packaged and exported for recycling. There is a voluntary Singapore Packaging Agreement (SPA) in place, in which companies under the Agreement are dedicated to reducing packaging waste, but it expires in 2020. There are no Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) laws for plastic in place here, which would make plastic producers take responsibility for what they put into the market, by collecting and recycling it.

People in environmental organisations guess that the government will not enforce any bans on waste or plastic use before an election, for fear of angering voters who might not favour the drastic change. Maybe if we were to start taking smaller steps — like bringing your own water bottle rather than buying disposable drink cups and straws — and take a more active stance in making our voices and opinions heard to the government, be it through dialogues with leaders or petitions, then that will push for a greater change faster.