Supermarkets are discussing a plastic bag surcharge. But they fear losing customers if they do so. More political will is needed to carry this measure through.
During a recent trip to the supermarket, I bought a bottle of wine, a pack of chips, some cup noodles and boxes of tissue paper.
The bill came up to $30, and the items were placed in three plastic bags. Even the tissue paper, which has its own plastic packaging with a handle, got its own bag.
The bags could have come in handy for when I had to bag wet trash, such as food waste, at home. But as it turned out, by separating recyclables such as plastic egg trays from the rest of the waste, just one bag had to go down the chute.
So into the cabinet went the rest of the bags, joining the veritable mountain of plastic bags that had accumulated over the past few grocery-shopping trips.
Plastic bags are undeniably useful: People use them for bagging waste, carrying wet umbrellas, or for holding sweaty clothes after a session at the gym.
But do we really need so many of them? Singapore used about three billion plastic bags in 2011, according the Singapore Environment Council (SEC). This number is likely to have risen as the population increased.
A plastic bag tax could be one way to reduce their number.
Last month, The Sunday Times reported that Singapore's four main supermarket chains - FairPrice, Dairy Farm Group, Prime Supermarket and Sheng Siong - are discussing plans to impose a surcharge for plastic bags of five to 10 cents.
The discussions came about after a green group, Zero Waste Singapore, called on the Government and businesses last year to introduce a levy on the use of plastic bags as a disincentive to shoppers who use them.
THE PLASTIC BAG PROBLEM
Why so much fuss over the humble plastic bag? The short answer is that they are toxic to the environment.
First, plastic bags, unlike paper bags, are made from non-renewable sources, such as crude oil. To manufacture the three billion plastic bags Singapore used in 2011, about 37 million kg of crude oil and 12 million kg of natural gas were required, said SEC.
Many households here reuse plastic bags to bag their trash. But no studies have yet determined what proportion of the three billion bags used here a year are reused.
Second, very little plastic is recycled here. Even though some 822,200 tonnes of plastic waste were generated last year, only 7 per cent was recycled. Of the 762,700 tonnes of remaining plastic waste, plastic bags constituted about a fifth of it, said the National Environment Agency (NEA). Non-recycled plastic bags, whether biodegradable or not, are all incinerated.
Third, the burning of plastic produces a residual ash. Excessive use of plastic bags could also clog up Singapore's only landfill, on Pulau Semakau. Ash residue from incineration is sent to the landfill, which is filling up at a rapid rate and may become full as early as 2035, a decade earlier than projected.
Fourth, plastic bags that end up as litter could also clog up Singapore's waterways and streets, and pose a danger to wildlife that may ingest it.
A surcharge is a tried-and-tested way of curbing excessive use of plastic bags. In October 2015, shoppers in Britain had to pay five pence (about nine Singapore cents) for each single-use plastic bag received. It resulted in the number of bags used by shoppers dropping by more than 85 per cent, reported The Guardian.
In Singapore, Japanese lifestyle brand Miniso said usage dropped 75 per cent after it imposed a 10 cent charge per plastic bag in April.
The possibility of a plastic bag tax being implemented in Singapore has sparked intense debate.
OVERCOMING OBJECTIONS TO LEVY
A Straits Times online poll had more than 75 per cent of over 4,700 respondents supporting a plastic bag tax. But many others spoke out vehemently against it on social media.
Plastic bags should be given out for free, detractors say, for two main reasons: The bags are needed for bagging trash; and the lower-income group may be adversely affected by such a tax.
If the bags are not given out for free, people may simply throw pollutive food waste directly into the common chute, turning it into a hot spot for cockroaches and other pests, they claim.
But as Mr Louis Ng, an MP for Nee Soon GRC, points out, a plastic bag tax is not a plastic bag ban. People would still be able to get bags for their trash. He said: "Many people forget that the first step of the 3Rs is to reduce... If people are charged for plastic bags, they may try to reduce the number of bags they get at the counter."
Hong Kong, for instance, has a plastic bag levy. But not all bags are chargeable. Customers there pay 50 cents (nine Singapore cents) for every single-use plastic bag they take, unless the products they buy come under a list of exemptions set out by the Environmental Protection Department.
Plastic bags are given free if they are used for food hygiene reasons, such as when shoppers purchase fresh produce like vegetables and seafood; if they come as part of a product's packaging ; or if they are provided with the services, such as bags provided by laundromats.
"If Singapore follows this example, people will still have access to some plastic bags without having to pay for more at the cashier. They can reuse these plastic bags or other plastic packaging to bin their trash," said Zero Waste SG's executive director, Mr Eugene Tay.
Moreover, not all trash needs to be bagged. "If we separate recyclables from organic food waste, we will find that most of the waste would go into the recycling bin - which you don't need to bag," said Mr Tay, whose organisation in June last year published a study on how to reduce the use of single-use disposable plastics.
On how lower-income groups will be affected by a plastic bag tax, experts say it depends on how much the levy is.
And at 10 cents per bag, calculations by Zero Waste SG show that the surcharge would make up just 0.35 per cent of the annual income of a household living in a one-or two-room Housing Board flat.
"With the right recycling habits, one household on average requires about seven bags a week to contain organic food waste, which will add up to about $37 a year. It is still a small cost in the grand scheme of things," said Mr Tay.
Singapore Management University associate professor of marketing Hannah Chang said surcharges are typically small, but serve as a highly visible and continuous reminder to consumers.
Professor Euston Quah, who heads the economics division at the Nanyang Technological University, said: "If the charge is extremely low, for example, between five and 15 cents, it will make no difference to most people except that it might make a difference to lower-income groups."
But he noted that alternatives to plastic bags are available.
"The demand for plastic bags is certainly not inelastic, given that shoppers can easily take their own bags. It is simply an inconvenience cost to take their own bags," he added.
The fact that so many places around the world - from Britain and Denmark to Penang in Malaysia and Hong Kong - are implementing levies on single-use plastic bags shows that their excessive circulation is a cause for concern.
When news first broke here about the supermarkets' discussions, some wondered if an industry-wide agreement to implement a plastic bag surcharge constituted anti-competitive behaviour .
The Competition Commission of Singapore (CCS) told The Straits Times that in general, agreements or discussions on prices between competitors are prohibited under the Competition Act, with the exception of agreements or discussions required under law, or which have net economic benefit.
"In this instance, CCS understands that as part of NEA's effort to encourage the use of reusable bags, they are engaging the supermarket operators to explore potential solutions to reduce excessive plastic bag usage," said a CCS spokesman.
But the NEA, when asked if it would consider making mandatory a plastic bag surcharge, would say only that it has been engaging supermarket operators "to explore potential solutions to reduce the excessive use of plastic bags" as part of its waste minimisation efforts.
With NEA declining to make it mandatory, businesses are holding out. None would be drawn to comment specifically about the proposed voluntary agreement, although Prime, Sheng Siong and Dairy Farm Group emphasised the need for all retailers to adopt a plastic bag charge for there to be an impact.
FairPrice, for its part, said it was "open to the possibility of charging customers for plastic bags to reduce its usage in complementing our overall sustainability efforts", although its director for corporate communications and brand, Mr Jonas Kor, emphasised its incentive-based scheme to reinforce "bring your own bag" efforts instead. FairPrice has had, since 2007, an incentive-based scheme offering customers 10 cents off a minimum spend of $10 if they take along their own bag.
Retailers' inertia on this is understandable, especially with online shopping posing a major disruptor to the retail sector. Levying an additional charge could further turn customers away.
This is where political will is needed. NEA can step in and make a plastic bag tax mandatory, as have governments of some other countries and territories, instead of passing the buck to supermarkets.
An additional tax, if imposed so soon after the water price hike kicked in in July, may not be welcomed by voters.
But in the long run, it is vital to help consumers recognise that the slight inconvenience is a small price to pay for the sake of the environment.
If something is worth doing, it should just be done.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 05, 2017, with the headline '3 billion plastic bags a year? Cut use with mandatory tax'. Print Edition | Subscribe
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