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Wed 18 Apr 2007

"Say no to plastic bags"

Category : coastalcleanup

"Say no to plastic bags."
By Lee U-Wen. Today, 18 Apr 2007.

YOU may not realise it, but each day, nearly every one of us brings a pest into the home. They are small, mostly pink, blue or white in colour, adaptable to land and water, and have caused the deaths of countless animals and fish around the world.

This lethal monster is none other than the plastic bag, a flimsy everyday item that we simply cannot do without, yet has been the scourge of many cities, even countries, which have rallied to impose taxes or ban them altogether.

The global war against plastic bags - something that most people use for only a short while but takes hundreds of years to break down - is picking up steam, most notably in San Francisco, which last month became the first American city to ban non-biodegradable plastic bags. Shoppers there now must use paper bags when they buy groceries, or carry their own bags from home. The move came after weeks of intense lobbying from environmentalists.

San Francisco joins a select group that has taken a major step forward in saving the earth, including Rwanda, Bangladesh, South Africa, Mumbai and Bhutan which have already imposed their own ban. Paris will join the list at the end of this year, with the rest of France following suit by 2010.

Why, then, is Singapore, a much smaller city and one that has serious aspirations of making its mark as a champion of green technology, not following suit in a big way?

A National Environment Agency (NEA) study revealed that Singaporeans use about 2.5 billion plastic bags each year - the equivalent of 19 million kilogrammes of waste.


In Apr 2005, TODAY raised the plastic bag issue to national debate.

Ever since a heated debate on plastic bags was sparked off in this newspaper some two years ago, the awareness of the problem has gone up somewhat. A national campaign to encourage the use of reusable bags has taken off well with more than 100,000 such bags sold at many major supermarkets.

More significantly, today marks Singapore's first Bring Your Own Bag Day, where more than 200 supermarkets will encourage customers to use reusable bags. That it is not just a one-off campaign, but one that will take place every first Wednesday of the month, is also laudable.

But we can do better. We need to speed up the push to bring down the use of plastic bags here.

The Government certainly believes enough in Singaporeans' changing attitudes towards environment issues, seeing how it is investing millions of dollars to study clean energy and launching eco-friendly flats in Punggol.

But time and again, whenever the plastic bag problem surfaces, we get the same message from the lawmakers, that it prefers not to impose legislation, but rather work with voluntary schemes and allow consumers and the market to take the lead.

Encouragingly, the door to legislation is not fully closed, as NEA chief executive Lee Yuen Hee said last week that he had not ruled out making it a law if the plastic bag situation does not improve here.

Then the question is, when is that breaking point for such a move to happen? What would it take for lawmakers here to introduce a law in Parliament? I believe that if we continue to take the ground-up route, we can never expect any significant progress to be made in a country where people have grown up expecting plastic bags to be given to us free.

Realistically, banning plastic bags completely is not completely feasible, given our heavy dependence on them, be it at the wet market or to contain garbage at home.

A plastic tax is perhaps the best way to make consumers think twice about whether they really need that bag when they buy their pack of cigarettes, a newspaper or a loaf of bread. Such a tax is already taking off in many countries around the world. If you're out shopping in Taiwan or Ireland, be prepared to fork out anywhere from five to 20 cents for a plastic bag.

Last June, Ikea stores in the United Kingdom started charging its customers 10 pence (30 cents) per bag, a move which the furniture giant said could cut down plastic bag usage by a whopping 20 million by this year. Its two stores here recently became the first retail stores to start charging for plastic bags.

How Singapore can do one better is to promise that every single cent collected from its plastic bag tax goes towards green effort, be it for more recycling centres, running environmental programmes in schools, or to various non-profit groups such as the Environmental Challenge Organisation and the Singapore Environment Council.

You do the maths - a nominal tax of, say, five cents multiplied by 2.5 billion bags would add up to an astonishing $125 million to fund meaningful causes. But until then, let us try to cut down our usage in whatever small way we can.

With April 22 being Earth Day - a special day to celebrate the Earth and remind ourselves of its scarce resources - each of us can do our part by refusing that plastic bag when we go shopping, or even better, bring along a reusable bag.

That would be the best present you could ever give to Mother Nature. And it's much better than having to deal with yet another law breathing down our necks.

Links

San Francisco, first US city to ban plastics bag distribution at large supermarkets.

  • "San Francisco to ban plastic grocery bags." Reuters (at CNN), 28 Mar 2007. San Francisco's Board of Supervisors voted ... to become the first U.S. city to ban plastic bags from large supermarkets to help promote recycling.

  • CNN video. "We can't sleepwalk into the future. The end of the era of cheap oil is here."

  • "San Francisco Nears Ban on Plastic Grocery Bags." By Richard Gonzales. NPR, 14 Apr 2007. Audio file and transcript.

  • "Paper or plastic? San Francisco decides." By John M. Glionna. L. A. Times, 28 Mar 2007.

  • "Plastic-bag ban full of holes." USA Today, 01 Apr 2007. The real culprit is the slob who litters or refuses to recycle either one — or communities that don't provide the means for him to do so. Our throwaway society is to blame as well. ... Each individual can do more to help the environment by reusing whatever bags groceries distribute or buying a canvas sack to carry goods.

  • Google News and Yahoo! News. For emerging reactions from other counties, states and countries.

  • Google News Archives

Some highlights from recent efforts in Singapore

  • WildSingapore: News about plastic consumption. Efforts to reduce use of plastic bags, issues, discussions.

  • "NEA launches campaign to encourage shoppers to use reusable bags." By Wong Mun Wai. Channel NewsAsia, 11 Apr 2007

  • "Ikea to start charging customers for plastic bags." By Tania Tan. The Straits Times, 11 Apr 2007. Retailer hopes to cut waste; from April 22, shoppers will pay up to 10 cents for them.

  • "Campaign to reduce wastage of plastic shopping bags." Habitatnews, 10 Feb 2006 - campaign and background to problem.

  • "Make the difference." Today, 28 Oct 2005. Every gesture contributes to improving our environment.

  • "Semakau landfill to last 15 more years as recycling reduces waste." Channel News Asia, 16 Jul 2005.

  • "Is S'pore a nation of plastic bag junkies?" Habitatnews, 26 Apr 2005 - Lee U-Wen's article title (25 Apr 2005) and Yvonne Lim's editorial, "Say no to plastic bags." (26 Apr 2005).

  • "IKEA will not distribute plastic bags on Earth Day weekend." Habitatnews, 11 Apr 2005 - about The Straits Times report, and comments based on data from ICCS 2004 and NEA Clean Card 2005.

Impact on Marine Life and Public Education

  • "Battling the Curse of Marine Litter" - article that explains the problems, special impact of plastic, volunteeer efforts on the international coastal cleanup especially mangroves and what the data tells us.

  • "Drowning in an ocean of plastic." Habitatnews, 07 Jun 2004 - highlights from article of that title in Wired News, 5th June 2004 by Stephen Leahy.

  • "More than 100 horsehoe crabs rescued from gill net at Mandai." Habitatnews, 13 Mar 2005.

  • "Lazarus Island rescue for crabs and coral." Habitatnews, 28 Jul 2004.

  • "Two dead turtles, guts choked with marine rubbish (Australia)." Habitatnews, 15 Jul 2006 - Univ. Queensland report.

  • "Reaching heartlanders on World Environment Day - EnviroFest 2006." Habitatnews, 23 Jun 2006 - One way that various groups promote nature/environment education in Singapore.

  • "What an Albatross ate." Habitatnews, 06 Mar 2004 - Link to a Shifting Baselines feature on plastics.

  • "L. A. Times "Altered Oceans" features the plague of plastics." Habitatnews, 05 Aug 2006 - excellent web resource!

International Coastal Cleanup Singapore

  • ICCS webpage - 2006 results.

  • "Battling the curse of marine litter - volunteers around the globe take to the shores." Habitatnews, 18 Sep 2006.

  • "Here's the dirt on S'pore's beaches." Habitatnews, 05 Dec 2005 - ST report by Radha Basu on the 2005 International Coastal Cleanup Singapore; 'Singapore has had an anti-littering campaign for more than three decades. Yet we seem to have a long way to go.'

  • "Worldwide Coastal Cleanup Bags 4,000 Tons of Debris." Habitatnews, 21 May 2005.

  • "World Oceans Day - ICC director speaks at the United Nations." Habitatnews, 09 Jun 2005.

  • "Coastal Cleanup data in FHM." Habitatnews, 22 Mar 2005.

  • "Reflections of Cedar Primary students." Habitatnews, 13 Oct 2005 - "The beach was very dirty. I think we P4s have done a good job in picking up the litter. But I wonder why there were so much litter. Does that mean we singaporeans don't care for our environment. In future, I wish I could see Singapore's beach clean." Hema Roshini 4-3.

  • Rubbish in Johor Straits - '15 tonnes collected daily'. Habitatnews, 23 Jul 2006 - NST article: "Tonnes of rubbish from polluted strait."

  • "Clean, Green S'pore? Not the beaches." By Radha Basu. The Straits Times, 22 Oct 2004.

International Coastal Cleanup Singapore Posters
Click for link to Flickr images with an option to download the original size for printing.

Posted at 7:28AM UTC by N. Sivasothi | permalink | email | Raffles Museum news