Plastic Pollution in Singapore: What you need to know

by | May 10, 2021

The climate crisis is nothing new to our lives and our planet. We’ve already seen how the Pandemic has worsened climate change in Singapore.

It is destroying our lives and our planet and will continue to do so if we remain indifferent towards this emergency. Of which, plastic pollution is a major contributor.

In this article, I will be addressing the impacts of plastic waste, plastic capitalism, and what we should do in response to this problem.

1.) Marine debris

Plastic Pollution: Marine Debris

When the question of plastic waste is brought up, most people would think about the anti-straw movement that spiked in 2018 – “#SaveTheTurtles” may ring a bell to some of us.

Often eaten by seabirds and sea turtles, plastic waste like single-use straws causes starvation and even death to marine life. However, there is more to the effects of plastic pollution than marine debris.

2.) Greenhouse gases

Plastic Pollution: Greenhouse gases

We have to recognise that plastic is made from fossil fuels and emits greenhouse gases.

This means that producing plastic contributes to a rise in greenhouse gases that consequently traps heat in our atmosphere, leading to global warming.

As of 2017, human-induced warming had already reached approximately 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels.

Plastic Pollution: Greenhouse gas

The effects of global warming as such are vast and severe.

These include but are not limited to melting ice, drying out already-arid areas, causing weather extremes and disrupting the delicate balance of the oceans.

For instance, extreme snow storms in the eastern United States have become twice as common as they were in the early 1900s.

3.) Transmission of Diseases

Despite plastic being a durable material, people still succumb to excessive plastic usage.

Across the globe, a plastic bag is used for about 12 minutes before being discarded, when it has a life expectancy of up to 1,000 years.

Singapore is no exception to such wasteful behaviour. On average, each person in Singapore uses 1.6 plastic bags a day, which would allow Singapore to guzzle enough petroleum in a year to drive 8,555 cars around the world.

These statistics reflect the apathy of our citizens towards the climate crisis, as this is twice the usage of an average Malaysian and thrice the figure in Australia.

Plastic Pollution: Plastic waste

The quick disposal of plastic means that there is a great accumulation of plastic waste.

In the last 60 years, humanity has created 8.3 billion tonnes of plastic, and 91% of it is not recycled.

In Singapore, in 2018, 94% of plastic waste was not recycled.

Consequently, almost all of the plastic produced is almost immediately sent to the landfill.

A serious problem that waste accumulation leads to is the transmission of diseases by vectors like mosquitoes and rodents, as the waste forms a breeding ground for them.

4.) Lack of landfill spaces

Plastic Pollution: Lack of landfill spaces

On top of disease transmission, in Singapore, our only landfill, Semakau Landfill, will run out of space by 2035.

A key alternative to landfills is incineration, of which, plastic incineration is a major source of air pollution. This releases toxic substances that pose a threat to vegetation, human and animal health, and the environment.

The consequences of plastic waste on climate change are dire, which explains the urgent need to reduce plastic production and plastic pollution in Singapore.

Do Singaporeans know and care about the problems plastic addiction causes?

Plastic Pollution: Do Singaporeans care?

Channel News Asia (CNA) recently commissioned a survey to find out just that.

According to the survey, nearly half of 1,200 respondents did not realise that plastic production and consumption is a climate change problem, reflecting the general lack of awareness towards this issue.

65% claim that they will recycle plastic after use, which might lead us to think that there will be a reduction in the fossil fuels needed to make new plastic. However, only 63% and 60% know to empty their food containers and drink bottles respectively.

This means that when food and liquids are thrown into the blue recycling bins, the rest of the recyclables collected become contaminated and everyone’s recycling efforts will be wasted.

According to the National Environment Agency (NEA), in 2020, only 4% of all plastic in Singapore gets recycled, so most of them still go to waste.

Plastic Capitalism

Plastic Pollution: Jurong island refineries

Sourced from The Straits Times

When it comes to the climate conversation, blame is often directed towards the consumer. However, it is important that we recognise that much of the responsibility for the growing worldwide plastic production lies with just a handful of powerful corporations.

In our capitalistic world, the fact is that cheap, disposable plastic is good for business. We see this in the excessive packaging used by corporations to persuade consumers to buy their products instead of someone else’s.

Oil and gas superpowers like ExxonMobil and Shell are also interested in plastic coating as many products as possible, so as to strengthen demand for oil drillers to keep drilling.

These are not things that can be managed by the end users, hence the need for corporations to step up.

Even if we brought plastic recycling into the picture, the reality is that most plastic is not recycled even once, since “making new plastic out of oil is cheaper and easier than making it out of plastic trash”.

What should we do about Plastic Pollution in Singapore?

Beyond the individual efforts, we need to engage with the government to call for needed systemic change and place pressure on corporations to reduce environmental harm.

By doing so we can substantially and impactfully tackle plastic waste and the climate crisis at large.

In Singapore, we hold some of the world’s biggest corporate emitters’ refineries (e.g. Exxon, Shell, Chevron), particularly on the reclaimed petrochemical hub Jurong Island.

SG Climate Rally’s Calls to Action includes proposals that will enable the government to actively seek to transition away from economic reliance on fossil fuel businesses as rapidly as feasible.

Large-scale systemic change seems daunting and definitely is not an individual task, which makes strength in numbers crucial in making our voices and concerns heard.

Here are some things we can do individually, as adapted from New Naratif’s “Explainer: The Climate Crisis and Singapore”:

1.) Join the environmental community

Plastic Pollution: Engage in a community

Communities are important in bringing people together to advocate and support one another.

You may keep yourself updated with upcoming events in LepakInSG’s public calendar, and/or join a Green Drinks session for knowledge sharing and collaboration opportunities across businesses, activists, and government.

You may also join the Climate Media Hub Facebook group to share/ discuss news, ask questions, brainstorm ideas for action, or just commiserate about eco-anxiety.

2.) Make your voice heard

Plastic Pollution: Meet the people's session

Sourced from The Straits Times

Reach out to your Members of Parliament (MPs), whether it is through Meet-the-People sessions or via email.

Through this, you may raise questions like those that Ms Anthea Ong raised in 2019.

3.) Volunteer

Plastic Pollution: Volunteer to clean beach

Sourced from The Straits Times

Check out the Lepak Kakis Database which lists active environmental groups in Singapore, such as student groups and social enterprises. On top of this, you may also start a fossil-free campaign at your place of work or school.

Quoting Ms Melissa Low, a research fellow at the NUS Energy Studies Institute, “The plurality of actions needs to be considered. Everybody needs to act, individuals, businesses, governments – everybody needs to chip in, otherwise our efforts will not work.”.

Final thoughts?

While we hold governments and businesses accountable, we should also continue to check ourselves and at the personal level and how we influence systemic changes for the sake of our planet and the generations to come.