The article highlights an idea to cut down on plastic bag usage in Singapore by imposing charges for them on people patronising supermarkets, provision shops and even food outlets and hawker stalls. The proposal deals with one of Singapore’s significant source of waste and it can be seen as a small move towards eco-friendliness. As with any other new initiatives, it is worth discussing its potential effectiveness, and any other impacts that the charges on plastic bags may have on the society. On the same note, examining such a green policy would also naturally lead one to ponder upon the “green” attitude of Singaporeans in general.
The usage of plastic bags is a major concern firstly due to the amount of precious resources that goes into manufacturing it. More alarmingly for Singapore, the local consumption for plastic bags last year was reported to have amounted to three billion pieces – an equivalent of 37 million kg of crude oil and 12 million kg of natural gas. The issue is made more tragic when we consider the fact that most of these plastic bags end up in the incinerator. Raising the price of plastic bags from zero to ten cents as a deterrent makes behavioural economic sense. A study in 2007 indicated that people have a strong preference for free item over a better deal available at a small cost. In addition, when a small price tag is placed on something that was initially free of charge, the demand for the item will experience a significant drop. Such was the explanation behind the success of the Area Licensing Scheme – a policy introduced in 1975 that charged car users entering the CBD in order to reduce congestion into the area. The success of a similar, local policy would perhaps indicate a possible success of the legislation of plastic bags in the near future.
In addition, regulations over usage of plastic bags have proven to be successful in other countries cases. Charging for plastic bags has led to a significant reduction in usage in the UK and a ban in China reportedly saved an equivalent of 4.8 tonnes of oil, while locally Ikea charging its customers for plastic bags has been hailed as a great green success. Looking at these successes, paying for plastic bags may perhaps be the solution to Singapore’s environmental woes. On the other hand, it is pertinent to look into the local consumer habits with regard to plastic bags. As staggering as the reported number of plastic bags disposed may sound, we have to bear in mind that a huge proportion of that number is contributed by households recycling them to bag their refuse before disposal. In fact, one of the common grouses raised with regard to charging for plastic bags is the inconvenience that arises when people dispose their waste. Simply put, plastic bags are not freebies that Singaporeans take for granted and discard as they please; they are as crucial to our daily lives as the groceries they once contained. Placing a charge on the otherwise free plastic bags may likely create the same effect as ERP gantries on Singapore roads – those who don’t mind paying for the convenience will continue to do so, while the rest will be ‘diverted’ to purchasing trash bags on their own.
The article brought in Ikea as an example of a retailer that practices such a policy. While one may be quick to view Ikea as a success story and testament for the future success of such a policy across Singapore, it important to acknowledge the difference between Ikea’s practice and an across-the-board policy for all retailers. Ikea is a unique shop with no direct, perfect competition selling Swedish-designed furniture and household items. Between paying for a plastic bag and paying slightly more for a stronger, more durable reusable bag, the choice is very clear for a typical customer who needs to lug home a heavy load of items with a good mix of fragile items. The take away here is that it is not wise to simply recycle a policy and expect a sure success in changing Singaporean’s daily routine simply by extrapolating from a unique case without acknowledging the nuances between the two scenarios. Should payment be put in place for plastic bags, in the long run, consumers will gradually factor in the additional ten, twenty or even fifty-cents into their routine shopping costs, just like how it has become a common practice for hawkers to charge an additional amount for take-away orders.
A major concern (for environmentalists, at least) that may arise from this would be a backlash in the long run, in the sense that such a practice would lead Singaporeans to gradually accept that contributing to the environmental destruction is yet another entitlement that they can afford with some small change. The next question that should be asked is perhaps how then, should such an issue be dealt with? A study has shown that people may not mind going green, as long as it does not cost more. This would explain why, according to the article, supermarkets would like to see the authorities make it a legislation to charge for plastic bags instead of taking the first step on their own: being the first to charge for plastic might divert their business to the next nearest competing supermarket. This would also explain why, despite the alternative option of reusable bags made available, customers still opt for the free plastic bags.
A very simplistic explanation, perhaps, yet it is one that clearly highlights the actual mindset problem that needs to be corrected over time should we really be sincere in striving to save the environment. The fact of the matter is single-use plastic bags are almost never ‘single-use’ in Singapore; hence the problem cannot be tackled simply like other single-use packages. Yes, the sheer amount of non-renewable resources that end up in our rubbish pile is indeed worrying, and the fact that not many are doing something about it is a manifestation of a country’s uncaring attitude towards Gaia. However, helping huge supermarkets save on packaging costs does not effectively solve the underlying problem. The focus should instead be on education and a gradual correction of attitude, and because paradigm shifts do not happen overnight, perhaps we should look towards a viable alternative such as bags made from sustainable materials as well.
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