Life in plastic isn’t fantastic

By Jovi Ho

“One teh bing, thank you.”

You drop two coins into the auntie’s palm and a plastic cup slides across the counter. You grab your drink and a straw and leave hurriedly.

Within just seconds, you’ve contributed to our planet’s ever-growing plastic waste.

In February, Taiwan announced a ban on single-use plastic drinking straws. The ban will first take effect in establishments selling food and beverage next year.

From 2020, free plastic straws will be banned from all food and beverage outlets, and a blanket ban on plastic bags, disposable utensils, and disposable beverage cups will be imposed in 2030.

PHOTO: KOUFU

At home

Singapore seems to be playing catch-up with a world that is increasingly conscious of its plastic waste, and I only wish we would be more aware of our harmful habits.

In 2015, Singapore’s domestic recycling rate was 19 per cent, placing us below other developed economies like the United Kingdom and Taiwan, where the household recycling rates in 2013 were already at 44.2 per cent and 42 per cent, respectively.

Singaporean households disposed of about 1.67 million tonnes of waste in 2017, according to a life-cycle assessment study published by the National Environmental Agency (NEA) earlier this year.

Of this, about one-third consisted of packaging waste, which included single-use disposables, such as plastic bags and food packaging.

Why are Singaporeans so obsessed with using plastic bags? Experts believe this is due to the high proportion of citizens who live in high-rise apartments, like HDB flats, using plastic bags to dispose of wet refuse.

The ease of acquiring plastic bags here could also be a factor. Most places in Singapore hand out plastic bags for free. You could even ask for extras. In contrast, blue garbage bags are sold at convenience stores from NT$1 (4.5 cents SGD) in Taiwan.

Furthermore, Taiwan citizens are expected to separate their trash into non-recyclables, kitchen waste, and recyclables, which can then be recycled at designated pick up areas.

This may be the reason why Taiwan stands at the forefront of recycling.

Without a recycling culture like this in Singapore, most of the 27 billion plastic bags that we use annually is wasted. This translates to an average of 13 plastic bags disposed of by each of us every day.

Consequences

Despite its convenience, plastic is harmful for many reasons.

Due to the lightweight nature of plastic waste, litter that is not disposed of properly can clog Singapore’s drains and waterways, eventually reaching the ocean and posing a danger to marine ecosystems.

Speaking to Channel NewsAsia, Mr Pek Shibao of the non-profit group Plastic-Lite Singapore said plastic straws break down into microplastics. This can threaten the lives of marine animals such as seabirds and sea turtles when ingested.

When aquatic animals are caught for food, we are the ones who ultimately consume the microplastics.

Proper disposal of plastic does not solve the matter entirely, either.

When plastic waste reaches the incineration plant, the burning plastic releases toxic gases and ash, which is dumped into our nation’s only landfill, located at Pulau Semakau.

The Pulau Semakau landfill is also projected to be filled by 2035.

The Ministry of Environment and Water Resources has not revealed plans for another landfill. Challenged by scarce land space, the Ministry is emphasising on domestic recycling efforts instead.

But with only 7 per cent of Singapore’s plastic waste in 2016 recycled, it seems we still have a long way to go in improving our waste reduction culture.

Movements in Singapore

A simple act like refusing the plastic straw when ordering drinks can help to reduce the amount of discarded plastic in Singapore, turning things around for our nation’s plastic waste issue.

Local food court chain Koufu set a national record on 29 Mar, by having 198 students, staff, faculty, and members of the public enjoy their drinks with bamboo straws at the same time.

Held at Koufu at Singapore Management University (SMU), the record-setting feat accompanied the launch of the chain’s No Plastic Straw initiative.

Koufu at SMU has since eliminated the use of plastic straws entirely.

This raises the question: If Koufu were to bring the initiative to NTU’s branch at South Spine, how prepared would we be for the change?

Imagine ordering a teh bing to go, but having to slurp it from the cup instead. A little messy, yes, but not entirely impossible.

If you must use a straw, however, metal straws are available for online purchase from $1.70. These reusable straws typically come with a pipe cleaner for a thorough wash after use.

This may be a hassle, but it is still a small price to pay for reducing our eco-footprint.

Are you ready for the last straw?