BY WOO QIYUN
Singapore has recently seen a visible uptick in the amount of plastic debris washing up on our beaches, with almost a 90% increase in the amount of flotsam collected from the beaches compared to other times of the year. This can be partially attributed to the annual south-west monsoon, but it is also testament to our high consumption of plastics – especially single-use plastics, like takeaway containers, plastic bags, and packaging material, which is the most common marine debris retrieved in Singapore. This issue of excessive plastic waste is not new to Singapore: a study showed that Singaporeans use almost 1.76 billion plastic items every year, of which only 4% is recycled.
The narratives surrounding plastic waste are highly complex, multi-faceted, and require great contextualization. The use of plastic is not always illogical or bad, especially if the appropriate downstream efforts are present to manage its adverse impacts. However, the benefits of plastic are short-lived and unsustainable considering its production and scale of consumption. Downstream measures also do not present a long-term solution and can serve to exacerbate our reliance on plastic. Effective upstream measures are therefore needed to complement existing efforts. This includes the concept of Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR), in which the responsibility of caring about the entire life cycle of a product is placed on the producer. This piece will outline Singapore’s current plastic situation and detail suggestions for how an EPR could help stem the tide of excessive plastic waste.
The bulk of Singapore’s efforts to manage plastic waste are downstream solutions (e.g. recycling, upcycling, reverse-vending machine), where plastic is already produced and steps are taken to ensure they are managed responsibly at their end-of-life. As such, downstream measures in waste management are undeniably important for ensuring that materials can be recovered for reuse and pollution is prevented or minimized. For example, Singapore has taken interest in the chemical recycling of plastic waste to produce NewOil, also known as pyrolysis oil, which seems attractive as a dual solution for tackling plastic pollution and energy constraints. We also see Singapore placing greater emphasis on recycling with plans to establish a Plastics Recycling Association and Centre of Excellence in a bid to turn Singapore into a regional hub for plastics recycling. These exciting projects, along with other familiar initiatives like public recycling bins, have the potential to transform the way we manage plastic waste and reduce our environmental impact.
However, downstream measures do not reduce our high reliance on plastics and can instead entrench business-as-usual cycles and systems. Furthermore, the focus on them frames pollution as a problem that can be simply resolved through diligent consumer behaviour, responsible disposal methods, and appropriate treatment facilities. In placing the onus on consumer action, we fail to impose equal accountability on actors further upstream in the production stages. Upstream measures are thus equally, if not more, important in addressing the issue of excessive plastic waste.
Upstream measures that influence plastic production, such as in design and material choice, determine the effectiveness of downstream measures. For example, the amount and type of plastic layers used in packaging directly affects its recyclability. While we can encourage consumers to reduce their plastic consumption, the broader issue here lies with upstream producers. Their control over plastic design and use in supply chain processes means that consumers often cannot avoid plastic waste completely. In analysing the plastic ecosystem, then, it is time to shine the spotlight on corporations and policymakers.
The Importance of EPR
This is where the EPR scheme comes in. EPR is a policy approach that holds manufacturers accountable for their products’ end-of-life impacts. Through ensuring responsible production processes, EPR allows for proper collection and disposal of the products after use and goes beyond that to promote general reduction of waste and environmental impact. With plastics as the largest category of waste produced in Singapore, coupled with its low recycling rate, it’s about time Singapore looked to upstream measures like the EPR.
The appeal to EPRs has to be understood in relation to prevailing industry conditions . Even though many multi-national corporations in Singapore have introduced their own 2025 targets that aim to reduce their overall plastic footprint, these efforts may not translate into meaningful societal shifts in the way we consume and dispose of plastic, especially if these are one-off strategies like switching to greener materials. Often, companies are unable to make significant supply chain changes due to infrastructural or financial constraints. Hence, EPRs are important to tie legislative imperatives with financial levers, to compel companies to make necessary transitions and strengthen local waste management.
The earliest EPR in Southeast Asia is expected in 2025 through Singapore’s Resource Sustainability Act (RSA), focusing on packaging waste. This is a notable development in Singapore’s steps to address packaging waste, especially after more than two decades of the Singapore Packaging Agreement (SPA), which aimed at raising awareness on and reducing packaging waste. The SPA has been criticized for “lacking teeth” , quantitative goals, and tangible incentives in driving transitions to a circular economy. In contrast, the RSA, enacted in 2019, sets out regulatory measures targeting waste streams (including packaging) with high generation and low recycling rates. It currently mandates large producers of packaging and packaged products to report the amount and type of packaging they are putting on the market. There are further plans to have producers detail how they plan to reduce, reuse and recycle these packaging materials (i.e. the “3R” plan) by 2022. This data will likely be used as a baseline for the development of the EPR.
However, while admittedly nascent, these plans seem vague at present, in that a lack of specificity over concepts and standards could result in mandated reporting devolving into a simple box-ticking exercise. It is worth highlighting the need to consider the EPR in tandem with a broader view on governance to ensure truly substantive change. While EPRs sound good in theory, their implementation worldwide has met with mixed success – many fail due to poor legislation, lack of supporting infrastructure, and poor stakeholder management. That there are no plastic EPRs in the region is a reflection of that. There is no one-size-fits-all approach, and any efforts in Singapore must be informed by existing policies, infrastructure, and socio-political contexts, to avoid the pitfalls seen abroad. As we await the EPR’s development, there is scope for it to take more effective action, and to consider the following aspects.
Firstly, specific definitions, guidelines and minimum targets should be established as industry standards. This is crucial for standardizing packaging material and processes, so that the type of waste produced is aligned with our waste processing abilities, hence achieving more environmentally-friendly outputs and reducing inefficiencies. This entails defining what constitutes “reuse” and “recycling”, setting guidelines on acceptable types of alternative packaging material or even setting minimum targets for the proportion of virgin plastic that can be used in packaging material. Without clear definitions, companies will have free reign to interpret standards like “reusing” and “recycling” on their own terms, with adverse effects on accountability. Without clear guidelines or minimum targets, there is no way to tell if the company is doing enough to reduce packaging, which can render regulatory frameworks like the RSA’s 3R plan completely ineffective. The lack of restrictions simply allows for too much latitude to sufficiently push for industry-wide improvements.
Secondly, financial mechanisms need to accompany mandatory reporting to nudge companies towards reducing their packaging waste or adopting more circular packaging strategies. Possible modalities include taxing producers on each kilogram of plastic produced, or taxing companies on potential waste produced from designs that are not proven to be circular or recoverable for reuse. Revenue collected can then be funnelled to developing waste management infrastructure and systems which are often expensive for the state, as done in July 2020 with the European Union Single Use Plastic Directive. They could also be channelled into rebates for businesses committed to packaging reduction. Taxes help to raise the cost of their existing use of plastic, and coupled with incentives, these mechanisms can make the shift to alternative sustainable options more financially appealing to companies. Without these levers, mere reporting is insufficient in motivating companies to make the necessary changes to their processes.
While it is not easy, our solutions must be designed to fix existing loopholes, not reinforce them. The EPR forces producers to rethink their ways of production and will shape downstream consumption patterns and waste management systems, effectively disrupting the vicious plastic pollution cycle. Strong policy action not only signals the government’s commitment to reducing plastic waste, but also helps to level the playing field in ensuring businesses make transitions as an industry to reduce their environmental impact.
Ultimately, the efficacy of the EPR is determined by how it is being integrated into national legislation, and how it is implemented and undertaken by stakeholders like corporations and the community. The upcoming EPR presents a great opportunity to really move the needle for plastic management. Being a regional hub for plastics recycling is commendable, but we can set our sights further towards being a hub for holistic plastic management. The surge of interest and community spirit in taking action for plastic pollution this August with the #EastCoastBeachPlan shows that Singaporeans are no longer ignorant about the issue, and are ready for Singapore to start acting on policies that will move us forward collectively.
People are ready for more to be done.
Woo Qiyun graduated from the National University of Singapore with a Bachelors in Environmental Studies (BES Hons). Her interests lie in environmental policy and environmental communications. This piece was written in consultation with the founder of Seastainable and sustainability professional, Samantha Thian, who is a current NUS Masters of Environmental Management student.
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