Life in plastic? Not so fantastic

By Linshan Tiong

GRAPHIC: DIANE LIM

Much has been done in the last five years to bring Singapore to the forefront of environmental sustainability in Asia, be it through developing green shopping malls and housing projects, or introducing an islandwide bike sharing scheme. We’ve been ramping up efforts — that much can be said.

It is probably old news by now that the current leader of the free world, President Donald Trump, believes otherwise. But climate change is happening, and it is becoming increasingly evident, as world temperatures hit record highs. Nobody can predict the future, but that is not stopping everyone from hazarding a guess — a quick search on YouTube reveals dystopian videos predicting Earth’s fate.

No amount of regulations or sustainability measures can reverse the environmental damage that has accumulated over centuries, especially in the 20th and 21st centuries. Not only was 2016 the hottest year ever recorded, it was also the third year in a row to claim that title — a worrying trend that shows no sign of abating.

Rising temperatures have led to plummeting ice levels in the Arctic, which in turn has led to catastrophic instances of freak weather and natural disasters.

At the very least, the deluge of environmental pacts and treaties being signed, such as the 2015 Paris Agreement, shows that we are aware of the harm we are causing to our environment.  

Singapore takes a stand

We can see that Singapore, too, is aware of the growing need to rethink our energy consumption. Even corporate buildings are included in the nation’s green efforts — Pritzker Prize-winning Japanese architect Toyo Ito designed the environment-friendly CapitaGreen office building situated in the heart of our Central Business District.

Many of us have probably also heard of the government’s latest efforts in the race to make Singapore a Smart Nation. As a country, we are always hungry for more — making things more sustainable, more advanced, more convenient.

In the 2016 findings released by the Environmental Performance Index (EPI), Singapore was ranked 14th overall in terms of meeting EPI’s dual objectives of environmental health and ecosystem vitality. In that same study, we also came in fifth place under climate and energy; EPI measured every nation’s progress in climate and energy by its reduction in carbon emissions.

Singapore is a tiny nation equipped with state-of-the-art facilities and research centres dedicated to pursuing a more sustainable model. We have been pulling our weight when it comes to innovating new ways to reduce our carbon footprint.

Just this June, more than 3,000 building projects were approved under the Building and Construction Authority (BCA) Green Mark scheme, an initiative that encourages buildings to adopt sustainable designs.

Our status as a small, wealthy nation should also make it easier for the government to concentrate its efforts to achieve more tangible results by promoting environmental sustainability and responsibility.

Yet, even with the slew of initiatives being pushed out by the government to promote Singapore as a model for green urban design, it seems we still fall short on environmental responsibility in our daily lives.

While local initiatives have sought to encourage environmental responsibility among Singaporeans — like supermarket rebates for shoppers with their own grocery bags — we need to take a more aggressive stance.

Learning from others

We should look to our environment-conscious European counterparts, such as Germany. Even though Singapore outranks Germany on EPI’s global overall ranking list, environmental responsibility is a huge part of their citizens’ lives — more so than ours, if their citizens’ meticulous attitude towards sorting out their recycling bins is any indication.

 Singaporean supermarkets could take a leaf out of Germany’s book by charging shoppers for plastic carrier bags. Here, shop owners are extremely liberal with doling out plastic bags for groceries — something I have had to accustom myself to again, after five months of bringing reusable totes everywhere on my exchange programme in Stuttgart last semester. It is amazing how much I managed to cut down on plastic waste when I had to pay for bags at the supermarket.

What I also admired about the Germans’ enthusiasm towards recycling was the Pfandsystem they had in place. Directly translated, Pfandsystem means “deposit system”. Shoppers pay a deposit on drink bottles when they buy drinks in recyclable glass or plastic bottles.

On their next trip to the supermarket, they can drop the empty bottles inside a machine to get a return on their deposit. They can use these returns, which come in receipt form, as a partial payment for their groceries. The refunded deposits range from eight to 25 cents, depending on the type of bottle (multi-use or single-use) and its capacity.

Besides employing a more punitive approach to encourage eco-friendliness, Singapore could consider such rewards for citizens who are environmentally friendly.  

In Germany, my flatmates and I would hoard every recyclable bottle we could get our hands on so we could return them at our neighbourhood Kaufland and get refunds for them. It was a sight to behold, as families would often return an entire trolley of beer crates and beer bottles at the same time.

There are also other ways we can move towards being greener. For a start, hawkers should encourage patrons to bring their own containers if they want to order food to go, instead of dishing out disposable containers.

Maybe being friendly to our environment is not in our zeitgeist, but we can always try.

So the next time before we book an Uber ride just because they are running a promotion, we should think twice about its environmental impact. It is time to break out that oBike app — we sure could use the exercise, and Mother Earth could do with lesser carbon emissions.