Circular Economy, Consumption

Unboxing a Packaging Problem in Singapore

Global Initiatives | Nov 25, 2020

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Curology by Unsplash

This is an original article written by Estella Zhong and Racia Yoong of Global Initiatives.

Formulated and launched by the National Environment Agency in 2007 in a bid to encourage businesses and organizations to acknowledge and take responsibility for their packaging waste, the Singapore Packaging Agreement (SPA) has been a significant step in tackling packaging waste, which actually makes up a staggering one-third of domestic waste in Singapore! 

Since its inception, the signatories under the SPA have reduced about 54,000 tonnes of packaging waste, saving approximately $130 million in material costs as of 2019. However, in just 2018 alone, the amount of packaging waste generated by our fellow Singaporeans was a whopping 530,000 tonnes.

Image from NEA

Hence, while the motivation is commendable and a definite step in the right direction, tangible and sustainable impact is still very obviously lacking. For example, the 13-year long joint initiative had only managed to reduce one-tenth of packaging waste produced in a single year. 

The current status quo cannot continue.

The world is experiencing a global phenomenon today where human activity all across regions of the world are making a green shift to sustainability. Even governments and authorities from the top-down have gained interest in environmental sustainability issues such as the circular economy and waste management

If people continue to remain in the past of unsustainable practices, it will only welcome adverse ramifications for business activities. 

This also explains why we are seeing more businesses become increasingly aware of the interests of governments and stakeholders to achieve sustainable development. 

In Singapore for example, the government placed a huge emphasis on the inauguration of a circular economy, embodied in the Zero Waste Masterplan. This is an important step towards Singapore’s vision of a Zero Waste Nation. 

To expedite this transition, government policies and mandatory legislation are implemented to incentivize good practices among businesses – who, unsurprisingly, are some of the largest contributors to environmental and social degradation. 

Nielsen (look below) conducted a survey among consumers to understand their willingness to pay for environmentally friendly packaging. It turns out that at least 53% of respondents are more supportive of sustainable brands. 

This clearly demonstrates the importance for businesses to listen to their consumers, plan for continuity and resilience, and adopt sustainable practices.

Image from Nielsen

A few other meaningful examples that are enacted include the Resource Sustainability Act introduced in 2019, which mandates that businesses report packaging data and their 3R plans to ensure all industrial and commercial stakeholders of the business are held accountable for their own packaging waste

However, while Singapore is moving in the right direction, there is still more that we can do. 

Singapore can take inspiration from the best practices of other countries – the figure below shows just a few examples of some best practices that have been effectively implemented globally.

Image from Towards Zero Waste

It is important to know that these measures and regulatory framework serve only as a guideline for businesses to follow, but the greater agenda to sustainable development lies in the collective effort from all levels of society.

What does COVID-19 mean for packaging waste?

Let’s switch gears and talk about the upsurge in packaging waste as a result of e-commerce sales and food production in the wake of COVID-19. 

Prior to the current health crisis, the holy grail of packaging waste has been an issue ignored for decades. However, the rise in online sales has resulted in an identical rise in packaging waste. In fact, many of us might even be oblivious to the over-packaging issue of online retail therapy.

In Singapore, the circuit breaker saw an estimated 20% rise in takeaway orders per week and an additional 73% increase in delivered meals. This is an equivalent of 1,334 tons of disposable forks, spoons, and containers – this amount of waste is enough to fill 92 double-decker buses.

After years of neglect, Singapore has finally made companies take responsibility for post-consumer packaging waste, but as takeaway meals and online shopping have become indispensable in these unprecedented times, these months of “new normalcy” have also reversed Singapore’s zero waste efforts to reduce single-use plastic. 

First, Singaporeans need to realize that we are the problem, not plastics. 

We have an excessive obsession with single-use plastic. Whenever we go grocery shopping, we use an average of 4 plastic bags per supermarket trip. This is the equivalent of 820 million plastic bags from supermarkets alone. 

Bear in mind that this figure does not include the additional 467 million PET bottles and 473 million plastic disposable items like takeaway containers that our fellow Singaporeans use each year. 

The point of raising this issue is to reiterate Singapore’s excessive obsession with plastics – a 400-year problem. Back in 2018, plastics was Singapore’s number one category of waste, generating 763,400 tonnes of plastic waste in a single year.

The next question then is: how are we stepping up efforts to tackle plastic waste in a post-pandemic world? 

While the Singapore government has instigated a clear path to achieve circularity, we as individuals also need to realize that we play a part in making that happen

One key philosophy is to adopt the 8-Rs (look below) which is a huge step up from the 3-Rs that we have all grown familiar with. 

Consumers

The 8-Rs is much more comprehensive, emphasizing important elements such as “rethink”, “refuse”, and “reduce”. As a consumer, instead of simply “repurposing” waste that has already been generated, what we ought to do is practice mindful consumption choices that will presumptively prevent waste generation in the first place.


Image from Kenneth Lyngaas

This mindset of environmental and sustainability awareness should not stop with consumers, but to be extended throughout businesses and governments as well for a truly effective propagation. 

Businesses

While the government will continue to implement island-wide initiatives such as the Zero Waste Master Plan, businesses must realize their significant contribution to achieving tangible differences. 

Because businesses have a large degree of influence, and hence responsibility, over our environment and their business impact on society, the onus is on them to act in accordance with government measures in an increasingly environmentally conscious world. 

Without this commitment from businesses, the challenge of packaging waste will only continue to persist as e-commerce sales continue to rise during COVID-19.

In a post-pandemic world, these bad habits have to be left behind. Consumers and businesses need to be educated about the right information and make a personal choice to practice sustainable household habits. 

If sustainability awareness is not prioritized, any effort to lessen environmental impact will only worsen and remain unaddressed. 

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