Adjournment Motion Speech “Towards a Plastic-Lite Singapore” by Mr. Louis Ng Kok Kwang, MP for Nee Soon GRC on 1 October 2018.
1.8 not million, not billion but trillion. Sir, a recent study found 1.8 trillion pieces of plastic, weighing a total of 80,000 tonnes, currently floating in a stretch of ocean between California and Hawaii. And researchers estimate that humans dump 8 million tonnes of plastic in the ocean every year.
The facts and statistics are beyond horrifying. As I looked into the problem further, I found video after video of people diving in ASEAN waters full of plastic trash. It was truly disheartening.
Sir, I believe that we have reached a turning point for the issue of plastic waste. If we don’t do anything about it, there will be more plastics than fish in our ocean by 2050.
Effects of plastic waste
This plastic does not just stay in the sea. It breaks down, releasing greenhouse gases that worsen global warming.
It chokes and kills one million seabirds and 100,000 marine mammals every year.
And ultimately, it breaks down into microplastics and is eaten by fish, crabs, and mussels. This comes back to us on our plates, in our food. It comes back a full circle and our own plastic trash harms us directly.
Plastic can no longer be seen as just an environmental problem. It is also a danger to our own health. It must be addressed as an urgent public safety issue.
Speaking at the G7 summit earlier this year, the UN Secretary General told world leaders that we are facing a “global emergency” over the plastic in our oceans, and that “leadership is needed now, more than ever” to protect “our collective future and security”.
East Asia Summit Leaders’ Statement on Regional Plan of Action on Combatting Marine Plastic Debris
Thus, I am heartened to see that Singapore is taking the initiative in organising international cooperation on this issue, through the 13th East Asia Summit.
This November, Singapore will host officials from ten ASEAN countries along with several other non-ASEAN countries, to discuss several issues, including a Statement on a Regional Plan of Action on Combatting Marine Plastic Debris.
Positive examples from other countries
Many of the nations who will gather for this Summit have already demonstrated a firm commitment to action against plastics waste.
Indonesia has pledged 1 billion US dollars per year to various initiatives targeting plastic consumption and pollution.
Malaysia has just announced their zero-waste plan that aims to abolish single-use plastic by 2030.
The whole country or some cities in the United States, India, Myanmar, Australia, South Korea, Cambodia and China have either implemented some form of plastic bag charge or banned plastic bags or other single-use plastic products – soon, Brunei and New Zealand will join them.
Given that much of the world’s ocean plastic originates from this region collectively, our actions here can have a truly global impact.
Singapore’s platform as a regional leader and host of the East Asia Summit gives us the ability and responsibility to step up our own plastic reduction efforts at home, and call on every member nation to do the same.
What are we doing in Singapore?
Sir, Singapore is doing our part but I feel we need to, we can and we must do more.
We are doing well at tackling the symptoms of the problem. Singapore’s efficient waste management system ensures that litter in our waterways is removed with litter traps before it reaches the sea.
But oceans do not follow national borders. Whether the marine litter comes from us, or other countries, it still ends up in our food and washes up on Singapore’s shores. And there is a lot of it.
Just two weeks ago, Jo Teo shared on Facebook about her experience at an International Coastal Cleanup organised by Little Green Men: “Today was an eye-opening experience for me. Having done beach cleanups with students, I’ve always thought that our beaches were ok. Not too dirty, maybe an odd piece of litter here and there. Perhaps we’ve always gone to ‘cleaned’ stretches of beaches.
Today, we were at a small stretch of Chek Jawa that is a little away from the boardwalk area where people typically visit. At first glance, it seemed to be fairly clean, yet in less than 2 hours, 30+ of us have collected well over 200kg of plastic! Plastic is really a HUGE problem! Imagine! We were only cleaning a tiny stretch of coastline perhaps just 50m long! What about those still in the water?”
We can continue cleaning our shores and continue trapping litter before it enters our waters but we need to move beyond addressing symptoms of the problem.
In August, at the Foreign Minister’s meeting in advance of the East Asia Summit, the Ministers noted that one of the root causes of marine plastic debris is the excessive use of plastic bags.
That is the root of the problem, which we must tackle in order to successfully combat Marine Plastic Debris.
If every country just focuses on trapping waste before it enters the waters, we will be combatting this marine plastic debris problem forever. We need to tackle the excessive use of plastic and I hope Singapore will take the lead on this.
In 2016, Singapore discarded 27 billion plastic bags, an average of 13 bags per person per day. This throwaway culture is so deeply ingrained.
Even when I bring my own reusable bag to the supermarket, the cashier sometimes puts my groceries first into a plastic bag, and then into my reusable bag.
We really need to start thinking about our plastic bag use.
SMS Amy Khor previously said, “Unlike many of the countries that have imposed a ban or mandatory charge on plastic bags, we do not directly landfill our plastic disposables but incinerate them. Hence, we do not face the land and water pollution issues that plague those countries.”
But sir, is it okay to waste so much plastic, simply because our waste will be burned or removed from sewage discharge into the ocean?
Or phrased differently, is it alright to litter just because someone will clean up after?
Burning the excessive number of plastic bags we throw is addressing the symptoms of the problem. Again, we need to tackle the root of the problem.
And we all agree on this. As SMS Amy Khor has also stated, we must “adopt a holistic approach and tackle this upstream”.
We should go to the source of the problem, and cut plastic waste by cutting plastic use.
Minister Masagos has also recently pointed this out, “the issue with plastic waste here [is] not about improper disposal, but about reducing the demand”, and “everyone [should work] together instead of waiting for someone else to take action”.
There are lots of people taking action in Singapore.
Sir, many people have formed groups like Plastic-Lite SG, Zero Waste SG, Tingkat Heroes, and Straw-Free Singapore, organising campaigns and outreach efforts to educate others about how to fight our throw-away culture.
This groundswell has also rippled throughout the private sector. Multinational brands like Hyatt Hotels, KFC, and IKEA as well as local businesses like Unpackt, The Green Collective, Plain Vanilla, and Muthu’s Curry – have taken the initiative to reduce or eliminate plastics in their operations.
And just last month, DBS launched #recyclemorewasteless, a nationwide campaign to discourage the use of single-use plastics.
In the public sector, the government is engaging stakeholders to voluntarily reduce all types of packaging waste and cut the use of single-use plastic items.
Soon, we will mandate that businesses report on the type and amount of packaging they put on the market and their plans for reduction.
We also have the Singapore Packaging Agreement, which encourages businesses to minimise packaging waste.
At our new hawker centres, we have also disallowed the use of disposables for dine-ins. And lastly, MEWR will be developing an inaugural Zero Waste Masterplan to be released next year.
But the government can and should do more. Sir, I propose 2 policy changes:
Review public sector waste
Firstly, we need to review the public sector’s own waste generation practices.
In our Public Sector Sustainability Plan 2017 – 2020, the word “plastic” is only mentioned once, in the paragraph on recycling.
The plan does talk about waste reduction but I hope we can add the word “plastic waste reduction” to be more specific.
I hope we can put a stronger emphasis on the reduction component rather than recycling otherwise we are again focusing on the symptoms of the problem.
SMS Amy Khor had previously stated that we ought to consider encouraging all ministries and agencies to eliminate single-use plastics from their catering and events.
This is really what our government should do, in order to walk the talk and lead by example.
And I hope we start this practice at Singapore’s biggest party, our National Day Parade. This year’s NDP fun pack contained many plastic items individually wrapped in more plastic, and even a NDP 2018 plastic bag for each person to bag their waste.
If NDP 2019 were to use only reusable items with minimal packaging, it would send a strong signal that our nation is committed to building a sustainable world.
Implement a carrier bag charge
Secondly, we must cut the demand for single-use bags by implementing a charge for single-use carrier bags of all materials.
As SMS Amy Khor recently pointed out, substituting plastic bags with paper or biodegradable plastic bags may have negative environmental outcomes, as the latter have higher carbon footprints.
I agree with SMS that we should ensure that consumers do not substitute carrier bags, but instead make the switch to bringing their own reusable bags.
Using 1 reusable bag over a year can save 125 plastic bags from being littered or incinerated, and the reduced demand for plastic would drastically decrease plastic production.
Let me stress that this is about reduction, not replacement. This motion is about a plastic-lite Singapore not a plastic-free Singapore.
And I do understand the public’s concern that plastic bags are necessary to bag household trash. I too use plastic bags to throw my rubbish down the chute.
To make sure that the plastic bag charge policy is tailored to Singapore’s unique situation, bags used to carry fresh produce should be exempted from this charge.
Using reusable bags to carry fresh produce, raw meat, or seafood may be unhygienic, so plastic bags should be given out for free for such items. I understand that Hong Kong is already doing this.
In this way, people can still obtain some bags to bin their trash, maintaining the cleanliness and safety of our rubbish chutes and waste disposal system.
There are of course critics of what Hong Kong is doing, how people are gaming the system because of this free bag exception, how enforcement is difficult and I might add the media asked me about this yesterday and how the compliance rate is only about 50%. But at least Hong Kong is trying and I rather be optimistic and say that not bad at least 50% of retailers are compliant. Good start.
A carrier bag charge has proven to be effective in Singapore. After implementing a 10-cent plastic bag charge in 2017, lifestyle brand Miniso reported that customers’ plastic bag usage dropped by 75%.
As IKEA Singapore demonstrates, this charge can also be a stepping stone to comprehensively eliminate use of all disposable plastic items.
In 2007, they applied a 10-cent bag charge; in 2013, they stopped offering disposable bags entirely. Today, they are working to remove all single-use plastic products from the IKEA range and restaurants by 2020.
Based on a survey by Zero Waste Singapore, many Singaporeans have responded positively to the possibility of a plastic bag charge.
This may benefit retailers as well as customers. When we receive plastic bags from shops, we often think that we are getting them for free.
But in fact, carrier bags can be a significant cost to retailers: Yi Hong Minimart spends $2,000 to $3,000 on plastic bags in one month alone. These costs are passed on to consumers, raising product prices. Hence, we are already paying for these plastic bags.
A shift towards plastic-lite practices throughout the retail industry will give customers more choice in whether to pay for plastic bags, and also help retailers save money and the environment.
As such, while a plastic bag charge looks like it will increase costs for everyone in fact, it will do the opposite and might help bring costs down for everyone.
Conclusion and summary of questions
Sir in conclusion, environmentalist Robert Swan said, “The greatest threat to our planet is the belief that someone else will save it”.
Let’s not play the waiting game. Although we live on this planet as if we had another one to go to, we really do just have this planet we call home and we all need to save it. Together and urgently.
Sir, just 2 days ago, my daughter Ella and I were at the opening of the Turtle Hatchery on Sisters’ Island. On the boat ride there, Ella exclaimed “Look daddy, there is so much rubbish in the sea, we need to pick them up to save the animals”.
There really was so much plastic trash. It was shocking and painful to see so many plastic bags and bottles in our oceans, Singapore waters.
I shared this on facebook on Saturday night and you can see over 80 plastic bottles in one of the photos I took.
Sir, a 4 year old knows that this wrong. A 4 year old knows that we must do something to combat this plastic problem. Surely we as a government should take the lead to do more.
Singapore has done a lot but I hope SMS’ reply to my speech will not focus on what we have done and what we are currently doing. Those are already publicly available.
I hope her speech will focus on what more we can do, beyond incinerating the plastic, recycling our plastic, trapping our waste before it enters our waters, the packaging agreement and the mandatory reporting.
Lastly sir, I hope that SMS can address these questions:
Sir, this Wednesday Ella and her schoolmates will be doing a costal cleanup. I’m sure she is going to find lots of plastic on our shores. I sincerely hope that when my 2 other daughters Katie and Poppy grow up, there will no longer be a need to do costal cleanups.