OCTOBER 9 — When a supermarket in Hong Kong charged for plastic bags in the ‘80s, it was perceived as a cost-cutting measure. Today this has become a global practice to save the environment. Some countries such as Bangladesh, China and South Africa have gone the full hog to banning completely the use of plastic bags. Those that have levied a fee include Taiwan, Indonesia, France, Germany, Switzerland, the United Kingdom and parts of the United States.
However, this has yet to make an appreciable impact in Singapore. If the four main supermarket chains — FairPrice, Dairy Farm Group, Prime Supermarket and Sheng Siong — agree on levying a charge for plastic bags, possibly between five and 10 cents, this may become a more visible feature from the middle of next year.
One wonders why the need for consensus when the push to go green should be an overriding national consideration. The kind of culture we want filtered down to the population at large must be that it is the responsibility of every individual to do his part. Are the big retailers in Singapore concerned about competition if the implementation is not uniform?
In the absence of a national policy, some retailers in the US in eco-friendly states are taking the lead, and this initiative has spread over the years to other states. In Australia, the states of South Australia and Tasmania are setting the example.
It is an encouraging sign that some smaller retailers are responding to the Bring Your Own (BYO) campaign launched by environmental non-governmental organisation Zero Waste SG.
Besides discounts, some are offering free drinks as incentives, with a few of them already committing to continue the practice after the campaign.
The BYO concept is not restricted to just plastic bags. Cafe chains such as Starbucks, Joe & Dough, and PAUL are offering a 50-cent discount for those who bring their own mugs, setting an example for more retailers to follow.
Some people may remember the old days before the advent of disposable polystyrene bowls and plates when people would bring their own containers purchasing soup noodles from the hawkers.
Of the four big supermarket chains, NTUC FairPrice has been encouraging customers to bring their own bags and enjoy a 10-cent discount on a minimum purchase of S$10 since 2007.
According to it, its Green Rewards scheme saved 56.6 million plastic bags last year. This is still a meagre two per cent of the national volume of 2.5 billion plastic bags used in a year in Singapore.
Many countries have tried the soft approach of incentivising customers by offering a discount. Invariably they move on to imposing a charge as a deterrent or even completely banning the use of plastic bags.
The penalty, although unpopular, seems to be more effective, because people are less inclined to want to pay more but are less likely to feel any worse off if they do not get a discount. Even then, there will still be customers who do not mind the extra charge, but hopefully they number in the minority.
The answer lies in making a habit of bringing your own bags. The challenge then is how to facilitate that change of habit, which is not going to be easy. Supermarket chain Cold Storage is giving reusable bags during the BYO campaign to customers who bring their own bags on purchase of at least S$20. Other retailers could do the same, but perhaps set the bar lower.
In Canada, where most big chain supermarkets are already charging for plastic bags, many shoppers visit the stores with their own reusable bags. Such bags are often distributed free at corporate and community events and fairs. So it is not just retailers that can help promote the habit. Other companies too can contribute to the cause by offering reusable bags as corporate gifts as they might commonly do with thumb-drives or T-shirts.
To ready the population to embrace the transition, it is important that they understand why BYO is a necessary practice to save the environment, and why the environment needs to be saved.
The message may be promoted through community organisations and the media. Many people may appear uncaring about the environment, but it is likely that many of them too do not understand what happens to the disposable plastic articles including bags that they discard, the harm that these items may cause to the environment and in turn our health.
Like most good habits, it should be inculcated at a very young age, at home and in schools. We would have succeeded if we attained the kind of result achieved in the “Keep Singapore Clean” campaign in the ‘60s that discouraged littering, so much so that when Singaporeans travel overseas, they bring their habit with them.
For a small country like Singapore with limited landfill, going green and recycling where possible becomes even more imperative. Beyond BYO, there are a whole lot of things that may be recycled — aluminium cans, bottles, newsprint and cardboards, and garden trimmings and food waste among them.
There are already bins to collect most of these recyclables at HDB apartment blocks, shopping malls and other public places. The same question may be asked if consumers have been sufficiently conscientious about disposing them correctly, or that they mix them up with other trash.
In Canada, a number of these items carry an environmental or recycling fee. For example, when you buy a can of soda, you pay additionally a disposal fee as well as a deposit which is reimbursable when you return the used can at a recycling depot.
Singapore may have to go down that road if its citizens do not heed the correct recycling procedures.
It is never too soon to take the zero waste effort seriously. While it is desirable to recycle where possible, it is even better to reduce the need to recycle by making, for a start, BYO a habit. — TODAY
*David Leo is a published author who supports going green.
**This is the personal opinion of the writer and does not necessarily represent the views of Malay Mail Online.