NEA to study impact of takeaway packages

A crane picks up rubbish to be incinerated at Tuas South Incineration Plant in Singapore on June 8, 2016.
A crane picks up rubbish to be incinerated at Tuas South Incineration Plant in Singapore on June 8, 2016.PHOTO: REUTERS
SOME OF THE DISPOSABLE PACKAGING TO BE STUDIED: Polystyrene foam clamshell box
SOME OF THE DISPOSABLE PACKAGING TO BE STUDIED: Polystyrene foam clamshell boxST FILE PHOTO
SOME OF THE DISPOSABLE PACKAGING TO BE STUDIED: Plastic polypropylene container
SOME OF THE DISPOSABLE PACKAGING TO BE STUDIED: Plastic polypropylene containerST FILE PHOTO
Polystyrene foam clamshell box Plastic polypropylene container Small drinks bag Brown paper with wax coating Unsorted trash at the SembWaste Material Recovery Facility. Last year, Singapore produced a whopping 3.02 million tonnes of trash.
SOME OF THE DISPOSABLE PACKAGING TO BE STUDIED: Small drinks bagST FILE PHOTO
Polystyrene foam clamshell box Plastic polypropylene container Small drinks bag Brown paper with wax coating Unsorted trash at the SembWaste Material Recovery Facility. Last year, Singapore produced a whopping 3.02 million tonnes of trash.
SOME OF THE DISPOSABLE PACKAGING TO BE STUDIED: Brown paper with wax coatingST FILE PHOTO

Agency seeking environmentally friendly alternatives to disposable containers

A man orders chicken rice at a coffee shop. It comes in a styrofoam box. There are three mini plastic bags of chilli, ginger and dark sauce, a pair of wooden chopsticks and one plastic spoon. Everything is packed in a plastic bag.

The disposables used in takeaway food and for dining-in accounted for more than one-tenth of all plastic, paper and cardboard waste produced by Singaporeans last year.

Now, the National Environment Agency (NEA) wants to find out what exactly is their impact on the environment, and if better alternatives can be found.

On Wednesday, it called for a tender to study the life-cycle assessment of such food packaging. This includes analysing the raw materials used, the production of the packaging and how it is distributed, used and ultimately disposed of.

The idea is to have an overview of the products' environmental impact, says Ms Nur Adibah A Majeed, an environmental engineer at the Singapore Environment Council (SEC), a non-profit environmental organisation. The study is expected to start next month or in October and be completed by the second quarter of next year.

What is now known is that food packaging makes up a sizeable proportion of Singapore's waste. It accounted for 11 per cent of 766,800 tonnes of plastic waste, and 14 per cent of 588,500 tonnes of paper and cardboard waste last year.

This is even as the total amount of rubbish grew: It weighed in at 3.02 million tonnes last year, an increase of 264,300 tonnes from 2010.

Over the years, Singaporeans' use of food packaging has evolved.

In the past, items such as waxed brown paper were more common. Now, more are using polystyrene foam clamshell containers (styrofoam boxes), plastic polypropylene containers (clear plastic containers) and plastic bags - which experts say are more harmful to the environment.

The NEA study will be examining these items as well as the smaller plastic bags commonly used for sauces and drinks, paper boxes, single-use bags made of paper or biodegradable materials and reusable plastic bags.

The study is lauded by environmental organisations.

"It's long overdue and it's encouraging to see NEA finally looking closely at Singapore's packaging problem," said Ms Jessica Cheam, editor of Eco-Business, a website on green issues. "A third of household waste comes from packaging... We might incinerate our waste, but these materials are fossil fuel intensive to make, extremely pollutive and hard to break down."

Mr Eugene Tay, executive director of environmental group Zero Waste SG, noted that Singaporeans' busy lifestyles are resulting in fewer cooking and more taking away food over the last 10 years. "The study will provide more information to consumers and companies to enable them to make the switch to greener alternatives," he said.

Consumers might be more motivated to do so if companies offer them rebates for taking along their own containers, said Waste Management and Recycling Association of Singapore chairman Melissa Tan.

In fact, since the National University of Singapore launched a campaign in 2009 to encourage the use of reusable containers at its canteens, it has helped to cut down on more than 47,000 pieces of disposable packaging.

But the push to go green is not always economical, say some food stalls. Mr Joe Lim, 29, owner of Moly Cafe, which sells bubble tea, coffee and meals, noted that many types of environmentally friendly packaging are more expensive and not as readily available as their plastic and paper counterparts.

"We encourage customers to bring their own containers to take away food and drinks, but the majority don't because they say it's a hassle to wash them afterwards," he said.

Educational-content developer Wendy Ng feels otherwise. The 32-year-old takes her own container with her when she goes out to pack lunch and has tried to encourage her colleagues to do the same. "We are really harming the environment by throwing away the packaging, so I just want to do my part," she said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 26, 2016, with the headline 'NEA to study impact of takeaway packages'. Print Edition | Subscribe