In Singapore, where almost all non-recyclable waste is incinerated, the streets, parks and beaches are perfectly clean. Compared to other Southeast Asian countries like the Malaysia and Indonesia who battle a monstrous waste problem primarily composed of plastics in their land and waters, Singapore seems to be doing the right thing.
However, Semakau, the landfill for ash and some solid wastes that was supposed to be sufficient for Singapore’s dumping needs until 2045, might reach its capacity ten years earlier.
The National Environment Agency (NEA) recently clarified that the original projection of Semakau reaching full capacity in 2045 is no longer accurate, thanks to the alarming and growing problem of disposable plastics. Singapore is looking at 2035 as a new projection for when its first and only landfill will be full.
Despite this dire announcement, the government has not revealed a back-up plan for replacing Semakau, nor has it instigated any bans or charges on plastic bags or single-use plastic items like straws and cups.
Disturbingly, the largest category of waste disposed of in Singapore last year was plastics – 763,400 tonnes out of the staggering 815,200 tonnes total plastic waste generated, said the NEA, citing that only 6 per cent of the plastic trash was recycled.
To add to these figures, The Straits Times reported in March that each person in Singapore threw away an average of 13 bags a day in 2016.
Taking into consideration increases in waste generation because of population and economic growth, the NEA insisted that “more needs to be done to prolong the life of Semakau landfill beyond 2035.”
A study by the NEA earlier this year showed that using one reusable bag over a year could replace the use of 125 single-use plastics bags or 52 single-use paper bags.
“While single-use plastic bags are needed by households to bag waste, the excessive consumption of disposables is a waste of resources and it contributes to our carbon footprint and climate change,” the NEA said.
While reusable bags are the “greener” option, some places have replaced plastic bags with paper bags. According to the NEA, while “single-use paper bags and degradable bags are often seen as eco-friendly alternatives to plastic bags, paper bags need large amounts of water to make and cannot be used to bag wet items.”
With supermarkets holding off on imposing a plastic bag levy and the government not planning to make them do so, the ball is in the consumer’s court.
This is where every Singaporean comes in.
Sonny Ben Rosenthal, an academic who specializes in environmental issues at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University, succinctly said, “There is no rubbish piling up in the streets, so Singaporeans don’t perceive a waste problem or feel personally responsible to reduce waste.”
In an article written on sustainable consumption by Norazreen binti Abd Haris for World Wildlife Fund Singapore, Haris relayed the “shocked, puzzled and indifferent” reactions people had to information on the growing plastic waste issue at the Earth Hour Village in Singapore.
“Singapore has an efficient waste management system that makes it easy for us to get rid of our trash. What we throw into a dustbin is gone by the next day. We need to start thinking about the impact of the plastics that we throw away. Are we addressing the plastic problem by discarding them?” asked Haris.
Haris said that it is “so convenient” for Singaporeans to use plastics that they take it for granted. “I once viewed plastics as a form of ‘disposable convenience,’ said Haris, “after all, they are cheap, readily available and versatile. The very reasons that make plastics useful are also driving its indiscriminate use.”
Haris discussed recycling, which people usually think is the way to being environmentally friendly. However, as Haris pointed out, certain types of plastics cannot even be recycled.
“The best way to go green is to simply cut down on plastic use.”
With the Semakau dumpsite filling with non-recyclable plastics like polystyrene, bottle caps and plastic bags, now is the time for Singapore to change its views and make a decision on plastic. 2035 is just around the corner.