Starting from this year, 2023, major supermarkets in Singapore have started charging for disposable bags to encourage shoppers to bring their own reusable bags. Since 3 July 2023, these larger supermarkets have been required to charge at least five cents for each disposable carrier bag regardless of the material––plastic, paper, biodegradable materials, and so on. Charging for disposable bags is an effort to get the nation-state on a journey towards zero waste.
Why is it important to get shoppers to switch from disposable bags to reusable bags?
Disposable products are often seen as counter to the principles of zero waste for several reasons. Disposables are designed to be used once and then discarded. They foster a culture of wastefulness and encourages the idea that resources can be used and discarded without considering their long-term environmental impact.
The production of disposable products depletes our natural resources, such as trees for paper products, oil for plastics, and water during the manufacturing process. On top of that, manufacturing, transportation, and the disposal of single-use products require energy, which often comes from non-renewable sources like fossil fuels. This energy use contributes to greenhouse gas emissions, which drive climate change.
What’s more, once the product is used and disposed of, most of it ends up as landfill waste. Every year, around 200,000 metric tonnes of Singapore’s domestic waste are disposables. According to NEA, only 6% of the plastics that get tossed out in Singapore get recycled. Paper has a higher recycling rate of 37%. And biodegradable plastic bags don’t get recycled at all–– they are incinerated with the rest of our waste.
Although the mandate applies to disposable bags of any material, plastic bags are one of the major contributors to Singapore’s domestic plastic waste. A study by the Singapore Environmental Council (SEC) found that shoppers take about 820 million plastic bags from supermarkets a year.
Funnily (or not), plastic bags were first invented in 1959 with the intention of saving trees. They were made as an alternative to paper bags, which were causing the destruction of forests. People were encouraged to switch to plastic bags. Sten Gustag Thulin, a Swedish engineer, who designed the plastic bag, would keep one folded in his back pocket to be re-used. By the end of the 90s, plastic bags almost entirely replaced paper bags around the world. They were seen as the cheaper alternative.
While disposables may seem cheaper upfront, they can be more expensive in the long run when we consider the environmental and societal costs.
Plastic disposables, for example, have been notorious for littering our landscapes, oceans, and waterways. They are lightweight and easily blown away by the wind. When plastic waste is mismanaged, they harm wildlife, disrupt ecosystems, and can persist in the environment for centuries.
By choosing disposables, we miss out on opportunities to promote recycling and reuse, which are key components of a zero-waste lifestyle. In contrast, the zero-waste movement encourages a shift away from disposable products and towards practices that reduce waste. Sten Gustag Thulin didn’t plan for the plastic bag to become a problem, but he did have the right idea––he carried a bag with him to be reused. So, next time you go shopping, remember to Refuse disposable bags, Reuse a bag you already have, and if you must, Recycle instead of throwing it in the trash.
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