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Stop the “Consultation” and Impose a Plastic Bag Tax Already

Stop the “Consultation” and Impose a Plastic Bag Tax Already

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  • Current Affairs
Photo by The Straits Times

If a plastic bag cost only 5 cents at the supermarket check-out counter, chances are you would pay for it.

After all, 5 cents is negligible when it brings a whole deal of convenience. And its not just about carrying your shopping home.

We also need the plastic bag as our trash bag. How else are we going to dispose of our waste?

This was the main concern of many Singaporeans when it was announced on Sunday that the major supermarket chains are considering imposing a levy on plastic bags as soon as next year.

The primary reason offered for such a deliberation is the environmental damage that plastics deal to both our country and the planet.

Plastics are, after all, one of the biggest contributors to the global trash problem. According to National Geographic, a whopping 79% of the 6.3 billion metric tons of plastic waste in the world is not recycled, accumulating in landfills or the natural environment as litter.

In Singapore, most plastic waste is incinerated, regardless of whether they are biodegradable or not. This produces carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases that worsen global warming.

The ashes are then dumped in Singapores only landfill on Pulau Semakau, which according to latest reports is estimated to reach full capacity by 2035, ten years earlier than projected.

Now this is alarming. It’s hard to fathom where our burnt trash will end up in 30 years time.  Underground caverns? Another artificial island? Sold to developing countries?

So given the relative affluence of our society, and the rate of our consumption and population growth, making us pay 5 or 10 cents more for a plastic bag isnt exactly the solution to the waste problem. That is plain cheap.

China is grappling with this exact obstacle to its environmental efforts. Its plastic bag ban in 2008 has saved over 1.4 million bags over seven years, but its not enough considering its vast population because many are more inclined to pay just 0.3 yuan (S$0.06) for a plastic bag instead of bringing a reusable one for their shopping.

If the end goal is to make shoppers bring their own bags to do their grocery shopping, then what supermarkets should do is charge a real premium for plastic bags say 25 to 50 cents, or even a dollar. That would certainly make shoppers think twice about not bringing their own bag.

Some may feel that this is undeserved punishment, especially when not all trips to the supermarket are planned.

There are also concerns about how lower-income groups will be affected by such a move. When each household item purchase is already a carefully calculated decision, adding 50 cents to one’s bill for something as simple as a plastic bag would surely be heartless.

But this should not be a problem if reusable tote bags can be sold at a much more affordable price, or even given free for a minimum amount spent. Accommodating the poor shouldn’t be used to justify why plastic bags should remain free or cheaply available.

In some states in the US, supermarket chain Whole Foods allows customers to exchange their worn-out reusable bags which cost less than a dollar and can last for more than 250 shopping trips for a new one.

Reusable bags need to be sold as a more appealing option to the public, or it would be hard for Singaporeans to kick a habit that they have grown accustomed to for decades.

 

If the government is serious about addressing the plastic waste problem, then there is no time to waste on ping-ponging feedback among industry players.

There is no doubt that Singaporeans need to be incentivised in order to change their habits.

“If I have to choose between paying a dollar for a plastic bag and bringing a bag with me when I go out, then I must be compensated in some form for this inconvenience” is very much a Singaporean mentality.

According to a 2014 survey by the National Climate Change Secretariat (NCCS), only 39 per cent of respondents agreed that it is up to individuals to tackle climate change, proof enough that most Singaporeans just can’t be bothered about the environment.

So it remains to be seen how the BYO (Bring Your Own) Singapore campaign, launched on Aug 31 by non-governmental organisation Zero Waste SG, could have an impact on consumer habits. At present, only two supermarket chains (amongst 21 retailers) offer a small discount on purchases if customers bring a reusable container or bag to their stores.

NTUC Fairprice gives a 10-cent discount with a minimum $10 purchase, while Cold Storage gives away a free reusable bag with every $20 purchase on Mondays.

Best-case scenario, the incentive would gradually create a change in our grocery shopping habits. Worst-case – retailers may see no incentive to take part in the BYO programme further and withdraw from it.

The proposed plastic bag levy, supposedly a voluntary agreement among the four supermarket chains, is a great first step for a country that is grappling with its heavy plastics use and disposal. At least someone has finally taken the initiative after all the chatter over the past few years.

But making the commitment to save the environment a gentleman’s agreement increases the likelihood of the initiative falling part since any party can choose to pull out at any time.

That would be one step forward, two steps back for our environmental efforts.

This is why the government should do away with consulting with the supermarket chains, and just step in to take charge altogether.

Many countries have already introduced taxes on plastic bags, with some degree of success in reducing their plastic waste. The most inspirational case study is Denmark, which had the lowest plastic bag use in Europe in 2014 – just four plastic bags per person per year – as a result of its hefty 2 to 3.50 DKK (S$0.43 to S$0.76) tax.

At the same time, uncontrolled plastic bag use is a predicament that is not unique to just Singapore. Even in Japan, which is known for its high recycling rate of plastic bottles, plastic bags are more of an enigma because they are deeply interwoven in the country’s shopping and takeaway culture.

Sceptics will claim that reusable bags do not help much in reducing our carbon footprint, since the manufacturing process is just as destructive on the environment. But if we go down this path, Al Gore would probably have to make a third movie to remind us about our dying planet.

If the government is serious about addressing the plastic waste problem, then there is no time to waste on ping-ponging feedback among industry players.

Since we are mostly selfish and lackadaisical when it comes to doing our bit for the environment, and believe that the responsibility falls largely on the shoulders of the government, then a nationwide tax would be the best way to elicit a cohesive national action to reduce plastic waste.

Simply tell us what to do, as has always been the case with national policies. Though at first Singaporeans will grumble and whine, everyone eventually falls in line anyway.

If anything, perhaps this could be used as a reusable bag for your grocery shopping? Support local, right?

Author

Benjamin Lim Contributing editor