The writer is Market Transformation Manager at WWF-Singapore, Maggie Lee
It is no news that plastics have become rapidly demonised by the public in general — the haunting video clip of a straw pulled out of a poor turtle’s nose (or the sperm whale with 6kg of plastics in its stomach) remains a stark reminder of our over-dependence on disposable plastics on menial or even unnecessary tasks.
Starbucks, along with countless chains that serve beverages, have vowed to remove the infamous symbol of such dependence by phasing out the disposable plastic straw. Without the straw, we can still sip our liquid beverages without much problem, but what about other single-use plastics that serve a more important purpose in our lives?
While we all want to reduce our over-dependence on disposable plastics, fact is, no two industries’ plastic consumption patterns are alike.
When looking at where to start, it is important we address several factors. Below, here’s how to evaluate our plastic consumption and the logical next step to lower it.
Is it really that necessary?
The necessity of a disposable plastic item is relatively easy to gauge. Not readily giving out plastic straws is a simple initiative that is least disruptive to most operations.
For any business that’s keen to start on their plastic reduction journey, the first step is always to revisit the necessity of their existing disposable plastic items.
Can we #UseLessPlastic by re-thinking the operational or product design? A brilliant example was the “spork”, a combination of spoon and fork that was given out decades ago by a global fast-food chain. Instead of having two separate utensils, one was all people needed, which effectively reduced plastic consumption by half.
What would be the most efficient way to reduce plastics without compromising business operations?
Next on the list of important factors to address is impact. There is a misconception that all plastics are equal.
Unfortunately, some types of plastics, especially the coloured and flexible ones, are much harder to recycle than others. To know the real impact of a plastic item, just look what happens to it at the end of its lifecycle. What is the likelihood of it being reused or recycled? The next time you ask for that disposable plastic bag, think twice. Chances are, upon disposal it’ll likely head for the landfill, incineration plant, or worst of all – the ocean.
For the hospitality industry, replacing the sheer amount of plastic bottles of water handed out in hotel rooms with water dispensers, adds up to a staggering thousands of kilograms of plastic reduced daily.
In Singapore, hotels that are working with us to make some serious commitments on their plastic use are the AccorHotels Group, Hilton hotels in Singapore, and Ramada and Days Hotels by Wyndham Singapore at Zhongshan Park.
Availability of alternatives: What material to trial next?
Another common way to reduce plastic use is to find alternatives that are more sustainable, and are not made from fossil fuels. These products are low-carbon, perfectly capable of replacing disposable plastics, and getting more accessible and cheaper by the day.
Case in point: plastic toothbrushes used in hotels and flights can be replaced by sanitised bamboo handles with plant-based bristles.
Exciting innovations are emerging. Nanyang Technological University has been looking at using “useless parts” of a Singapore-favourite, the durian, to extract cellulose fibres, which can be made into food-grade packaging. The fact that the husk and pits of a durian are usually disposed of makes this type of manufacturing packaging very promising on the sustainability front.
While we can give advice on the overall sustainability of commonly used materials case-by-case (write to me at email@example.com to find out more), here is a rule of thumb: waste materials like post-processing plant fibres are far more desirable than new materials – even if they are renewable – that are being produced specifically for the purpose of manufacturing disposables.
But as with most matters, the issue with and solutions for plastics is not black and white.
It is also worthwhile to note that bioplastic comes with its own issues like agricultural land-use and water consumption requirements, but the shift to a renewable resource is certainly one step in the right direction.
Could safety in numbers work for businesses too?
Not all industries are the same. Every industry’s plastic needs are different and journey to reduction would also look very different – but collective action is key.
When working alone, businesses may find it daunting to implement policies that may inconvenience their customers. This is where collective action comes in.
The good news: Our PACT (Plastic ACTion) initiative allows companies in the same industry (think F&B, retail, and hotels) to implement industry-wide actions or targets on plastics. And the best thing yet, is that synchronised implementation means that everybody acts as one. This allows entire industries is to carry out well-thought-out strategies to address our over-dependence on disposable plastics.
If there is one thing we can learn from nature, “safety in numbers” may be just the lesson that all businesses can adopt.
How can we start a culture shift in Singapore?
When Hong Kong first levied a tax for plastic bags 10 years ago in 2009, the public had to make some adjustments – unless they choose to pay $0.50 HKD each time they get a plastic bag from retailers.
While the reduction of plastic bags was apparent and remains the highlight result of this policy, there was another by-product that is much less praised: the culture shift away from disposable plastics.
People in Hong Kong are now accustomed to the absence of disposable plastic bags. Bringing their own containers to shop for food has become second nature. This shift away from disposable plastics has even led to a movement to reduce reliance on the disposable feminine sanitary napkin (which contains plastic), by switching to reusable cups made of medical-grade silicone that lasts for a decade.
Businesses in Singapore, too, can drive a culture shift as long as we stop pushing the responsibilities between individuals, businesses and government. Consumers, citizens, cities, regions, and governments have a role to play in shifting the ‘take-make-dispose’ economic model to a circular one, where we minimise our resource use and retain waste materials in the economy. There may be no short cuts when it comes to reducing our use of plastics, but the solutions are certainly in our hands.
Write to Maggie at firstname.lastname@example.org if you want to know more and/or be a part of PACT, a voluntary, business-led initiative for comprehensive action to eliminate plastic pollution in nature by World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF).