Carrot and stick approach needed in tackling plastic waste

We commend the Government for looking into the issue of plastic waste (Tackling excessive plastic bag use: No levy in the works; March 7).

We are fully supportive of new measures announced, such as prohibiting disposable utensils in new hawker centres and mandating that companies report on their plans to reduce packaging.

But while these measures can help reduce the amount of plastic waste we generate, they do little to address the root of the problem - the behaviour of Singaporeans.

Simply put, Singaporeans use too much plastic and recycle too little. Since 2003, the amount of plastic thrown away in Singapore has increased by over 40 per cent, reaching 147kg per person in 2016.

Yet, over the same period, our plastic recycling rate has remained stuck at a dismal 7 per cent. The National Recycling Programme in 2016 succeeded in collecting just 2 per cent of our domestic waste.

Improper plastic use and disposal has an impact on us in countless negative ways. Disposable plastics, such as bottles and utensils, are among the most common types of rubbish found on our shores.

Plastics in the ocean injure and kill marine life, and even find their way into our bodies when we eat fish that have swallowed plastic particles.

Since 2003, the amount of plastic thrown away in Singapore has increased over 40 per cent, reaching 147kg per person in 2016. Yet, over the same period, our plastic recycling rate has remained stuck at a dismal 7 per cent. The National Recycling Programme in 2016 succeeded in collecting just 2 per cent of our domestic waste.

On top of this, producing and incinerating plastic creates huge amounts of emissions, as well as toxic ash, which would take up precious space in our landfill.

Given the scale and urgency of the problem, the announced measures are inadequate.

How, then, can we get Singaporeans to change their behaviour? Other countries have already demonstrated how effective an approach combining "carrots" and "sticks" can be.

Germany, for example, has a system combining cash returns for taking plastic bottles to recycling stations, with taxes for all stores providing plastic bags. Today, Germany generates less than half of Singapore's plastic waste per capita, and has a plastic recycling rate of almost 99 per cent.

Minister for the Environment and Water Resources Masagos Zulkifli has called on Singaporeans to be more environmentally conscious, as the Government cannot deal with climate change alone. But the reverse is also true.

Singaporeans need help from the Government to nudge them in the right direction.

In this Year of Climate Action, we urge the implementation of a more robust system of incentives and disincentives to spur Singaporeans to use and dispose of plastics more responsibly.

Pek Shi Bao

Head, Eateries Outreach

Plastic-Lite Singapore

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 12, 2018, with the headline 'Carrot and stick approach needed in tackling plastic waste'. Print Edition | Subscribe