Reducing plastic waste: the long road ahead

18 Mar 2019

By Jonathan Chew


In October last year, NTU implemented a $0.20 levy for every plastic bag taken from all retail and food outlets campus-wide. The move was announced during NTU President Subra Suresh’s State of the University address in August the same year and is part of a move to reduce plastic usage on campus.

Initially, I was annoyed when I realised I needed to carry reusable bags everywhere I go or pay for plastic ones if I didn’t have any. But in the past five months, the policy has made me more aware of my own habits and how my decisions can impact the environment.

This initiative in NTU is part of a larger anti-plastic movement in Singapore that began in 2015, supposedly after a video showing a sea turtle with a straw stuck up its nose went viral, according to a Channel NewsAsia report last July.

While the new policy at NTU can cut down on plastic bag use, I believe we can do more for the environment by cutting down on our use of other single-use plastics like cutlery and takeaway boxes as well.

By introducing better alternatives such as biodegradable cutlery and encouraging students to recycle more often, single-use plastics can gradually be phased out.

All the small things

Environmental research conducted by experts and scientists shows that plastic straws only contribute to a small percentage of plastic trash causing marine pollution.

In an interview with Stanford University’s campus newspaper The Stanford Report last year, Jim Leape, the co-director of the Center for Ocean Solutions, said that plastic straws are “only a tiny fraction of the problem – less than one per cent.”

Furthermore, straws are so small and light that they do not actually contribute as much to plastic pollution in oceans by weight. According to an article on Science X, a web-based science, research, and technology news service, the combined weight of all the straws polluting the oceans only adds up to about 2,000 tonnes. This is rather insignificant, compared to the estimated 9 million tonnes of total plastic waste in the ocean.

As for plastic bags, a study published by international journal Marine Pollution Bulletin, showed that soft plastics like plastic bags made up only 1.27 per cent of the total plastic debris they found on two beaches in Alphonse Island, Seychelles. Other items such as plastic bottles and foam sheets actually contributed more in terms of pollution than plastic bags.

Seeking alternatives

We can see this almost every day in NTU. Even though canteens and food courts no longer provide free plastic bags, takeaway cutlery and utensils are still largely plastic.

In our supermarkets at the North Spine and at the halls of residence, rolls of plastic bags are still openly displayed for people to use. At convenience stores around NTU, microwavable meals are stored in plastic boxes and wrapped with cling wrap.

We should look towards easily recyclable alternatives for these items. One of these is bio-compostable corn starch cutlery and containers -- their production process is more eco-friendly.

Corn starch, as the name implies, is made from corn, which makes it both sustainable and renewable. This puts much less strain on the environment. Items made from corn starch are also compostable which means they decompose at the same rate as paper, and do not produce any harmful substances when breaking down.

Another way that we can encourage recycling on campus is to make recycling easier for students, especially those living on campus. While there are recycling bins around the school, they might be located in areas which might not be convenient to walk to. This could be countered by increasing the number of recycling points on campus, especially in the halls of residence.

Welcome to the bag parade

While finding environmentally viable alternatives to plastic is laudable, it is important to note that some alternatives might actually cause more environmental harm than good, such as the use of paper bags and metal straws.

An article by the World Resources Institute published last year cited findings by Denmark’s Ministry of Environment and Food, which stated that someone using a paper bag would need to re-use it 43 times before having a net environmental benefit. This is due to factors such as carbon dioxide emissions during production, water use, and land use.

Similarly, an organic cotton bag – much like our reusable shopping bags – would need to be re-used at least 20,000 times for it to be worth switching from plastic bags.

That said, until we can find a more environmentally friendly solution, paper or cotton reusable bags may be our best bet. We will have to make sure we keep reusing them to make the switch well worth it.

Eco-friendliness starts from us

NTU is already making strides on the environmental front.

Last October, a group of five students from the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information gave away 1,000 free reusable cutlery sets as part of their campaign efforts to improve the recycling culture in Singapore.

Earthlink, a student organisation in NTU, also conducts bi-annual recycling drives where students help collect recyclable materials from hall residents. Since this year, Giant supermarket on campus also allows students to borrow reusable bags with a small deposit of $2, which is another step in the right direction.

The Wave, a building in NTU recently constructed in 2017, is an eco-friendly sports hall that is built using timber from sustainably managed forests. Additionally, the Earthlink club in NTU also reported that the university has reduced waste intensity per capita by 21 per cent as of 2015. This waste production refers to the total amount of waste collected from NTU’s main bin centre.

But more can be done. NTU can adopt some successful recycling strategies and initiatives from other universities and countries. For example, in North Carolina in the US, reverse vending machines have been placed in Rite Aid pharmacies, where people can deposit bottles or cans and receive points or prizes in return. The points can then be redeemed from the host venue.

In the University of California, Davis, students have adopted another strategy for waste management. Since 1975, they have operated a hub for repurposing used or old items instead of disposing of them, which they have named as Aggie Surplus. This has allowed the school to sell over 8,000 items every year, which has greatly reduced the amount of waste generated.

Through the creation of a culture of recycling, we can all take small steps to heal the world and make it an environmentally friendlier one.