Packaging can be made from any material and is used to contain, protect, handle, deliver, or present goods. A large proportion of Singapore’s domestic waste is packaging waste. In 2018 about one-third of disposed domestic waste consisted of packaging. Approximately 55% of the packaging waste was plastic packaging, whilst 25% was paper packaging. The remaining 20% was made up of other types of packaging materials, such as metal and glass. As packaging is so common yet hardly reused, we need to find ways to reduce and consume it more sustainably.
Sustainable packaging includes recyclable mono-polyolefin packaging, recyclable paper packaging, and degradable/compostable plastic packaging. Sustainable food packaging can help secure the safety of the food consumed and reduce the amount of food wasted. This in turn benefits Singapore’s food security, and, at the same time, provides solutions to solve plastic pollution.
The Singapore Packaging Agreeement
The Singapore Packaging Agreement (SPA) is a joint initiative started in 2007 by the government, industry, and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to reduce packaging waste. Since its inception more than 200 organizations in Singapore have worked together to cut down on packaging waste. As of 2019, they have cumulatively reduced about 54,000 tonnes of packaging waste, resulting in estimated packaging material cost savings of $130 million for locally consumed products.
Supporting ground-up movements
One such initiative was Zero Waste SG’s Bring Your Own (BYO) campaign, supported by the Call for Ideas Fund. This initiative aimed to encourage consumers to use reusable bags and containers when they buy takeaway food, beverages, and groceries. Since 2017, more than 400 retail outlets have joined the campaign, providing incentives for customers to bring their own reusables. This has saved approximately two million pieces of plastic disposables and packaging. Leveraging the success of BYO, the NEA supported Zero Waste SG with the Partnership Fund to further develop the campaign in 2019 into Bring Your Own Bag (BYOB) to focus on reducing disposable plastic bag usage.
The packaging waste management roadmap
Packaging is not all bad. It extends the shelf life of food and protects new products from damage during transportation. However, the problem is excessive packaging. Mandatory reporting of packaging data and 3R plans for packaging were introduced in 2020 and legislated under the Resource Sustainability Act. This builds on an existing mandatory waste reporting framework for large malls and hotels, which will also be expanded to all large industrial and commercial premises, including large convention and exhibition centers. The mandatory packaging reporting framework means that producers of packaged products and supermarkets with an annual turnover of more than $10 million will be required to report data on the packaging that they put on the market and their 3R plans for packaging.
The mandatory packaging reporting framework will also lay the foundation for an EPR framework for managing packaging waste, including plastics. This ensures producers are responsible for the collection and recycling of the materials they use to package their products. The aim is to have the EPR system for packaging waste management in place no later than 2025.
Closing the plastics loop
The use of plastics is prevalent in our daily lives – many of our beverage bottles, takeaway food containers, and grocery bags are made of plastics. While plastics can be useful, they are often used in excess and discarded in large amounts.
Plastic has become an issue of significant concern globally as countries re-examine how to sustainably manage their plastic waste. In Singapore, we incinerate all our general waste, minimizing the amount of plastic that ends up as litter both on land and in the oceans. At the same time, because of the drive towards a circular economy to replace the “take-make-dispose” linear economy, and the push to reduce industrial carbon emissions, there has been an increasing interest in the industry to explore more advanced technology to close the plastics loop.
Take, for example, the adoption of chemical recycling to turn plastic into feedstock or fuel. Apart from the current prevalent technology of using mechanical recycling to recycle plastics, chemical recycling technology involves converting separated or mixed plastics back into pyrolysis oil, naphtha, methanol, and syngas. These products can either be converted back into building blocks that can be used to make new plastic products or converted into fuel to replace fossil fuel sources. In particular, there are opportunities for mixed or dirty plastics to be recycled. This is crucial as these mixed and dirty plastics cannot currently be recycled. As a petrochemical hub, Singapore is well-placed to harness this new growth area to close the plastics loop.
Imposing a charge for single-use plastic bags may divert demand to paper or bio-degradable bags, which may not be more resource-efficient from a lifecycle perspective. This is because the production and disposal of all materials have some degree of environmental impact. Therefore, we will have to work on managing excessive consumption of all types of packaging and disposables.