SINGAPORE - There are no plans to introduce a levy on plastic bags, and replacing them with bio-degradable or paper bags may not be that much greener.
"Imposing a charge or ban on disposable plastic bags and substituting them with other types of disposable bags is unlikely to improve environmental outcomes," said Dr Amy Khor, Senior Minister of State for the Environment and Water Resources, on Tuesday (March 6) during the debate on her ministry's budget.
Every type of disposable bag, be it a bio-degradable bag or a paper bag, affects the environment, whether it is through carbon emissions, heavy water use or significant land clearance, Dr Khor said, citing a study commissioned by the National Environment Agency (NEA), which comes under her ministry.
She was replying to a question from Ms Cheng Li Hui (Tampines GRC), who had asked if the ministry would consider imposing a levy on plastic bags to reduce their excessive consumption.
The study had looked at the environmental impact of various disposables, including carrier bags. One of its key findings is that the regular use of a reusable bag over a year could replace the use of 125 single-use plastic bags, or 52 single-use paper bags.
Similarly, the study also found that the regular use of one reusable container over five years could replace the use of 3,650 single-use plates.
The study, led by National University of Singapore scientist Kua Harn Wei, found that despite the claims of retailers here who offer biodegradable bags as greener alternatives to plastic bags, both types of bags required the same amount of resources to make.
Both also have similar environmental impacts when incinerated.
"The study concluded that consumers can generally reduce their environmental impact by using reusable bags and food containers instead of disposables," said Dr Khor.
In Singapore, waste is incinerated and not left in landfills to degrade.
The excessive use of plastic bags was a concern also raised by Non-Constituency MP Dennis Tan of the Workers' Party.
The latest available figure for the number of plastic bags used in Singapore dates back to 2011, when the Singapore Environment Council did a study to show that three billion plastic bags were used that year.
But the figure could be much higher.
NEA figures show that some 822,200 tonnes of plastic waste were generated in 2016, of which only 7 per cent was recycled. Of the 762,700 tonnes of remaining plastic waste, plastic bags constituted about a fifth. The average weight of a single-use plastic bag such as those distributed at supermarkets is 5.5g. This means that 27 billion bags - nine times more than SEC's 2011 estimate - were not recycled.
BETTER TO TACKLE USE OF DISPOSABLES
Dr Khor noted that plastic bags are necessary for responsible and hygienic bagging of waste in Singapore's moist, tropical climate.
"In Singapore, a more sustainable approach is to tackle the excessive consumption of all types of disposables," she added, saying her ministry is working with stakeholders to reduce the excessive use of plastic bags and disposables such as single-use food containers.
For example, Dr Khor said food delivery company Foodpanda is working on a trial where customers can opt out of disposable cutlery use when ordering food.
Last year, environmental group Zero Waste Singapore launched an innovative Bring Your Own Singapore campaign to incentivise consumers to take along their own reusable bags or containers with them to eateries and supermarkets to earn discounts or free gifts.
Other retailers, however, have been imposing plastic bag levies within their premises.
For example, Japanese lifestyle brand Miniso said usage dropped 75 per cent after it imposed a 10-cent charge per plastic bag in April.
On its part, the NEA will explore ways to reduce the use of disposables.
For a start, hawkers at new hawker centres managed by NEA or by NEA-appointed managing agents - such as those in Our Tampines Hub, Pasir Ris Central and Yishun Park - have already been prohibited from providing disposables to patrons who dine in.
In line with Singapore's Zero Waste vision, Dr Khor also outlined plans to reduce packaging waste.
The Republic produced about 557,000 tonnes of packaging waste last year - a third of household waste - enough to fill more than 1,000 Olympic-size swimming pools.
Dr Khor noted that the voluntary Singapore Packaging Agreement has cumulatively reduced almost 39,000 tonnes of packaging waste since its inception in 2007.
She said: "We will continue to support such efforts while holistically tackling the broader issue upstream by reducing all types of packaging waste at source.
"By 2021, we will mandate that businesses report on the type and amount of packaging they put on the market and their plans for reduction. We will start industry consultations this year."