Legislation is ‘no silver bullet’ in nurturing green consumers, says NTUC Fairprice CEO

Amid debate over plastic bag surcharge, speakers at ethical consumerism forum say education efforts must continue
KELLY NG Today Online 13 Oct 17;

SINGAPORE — Charging for single-use plastic bags may not permanently cut demand for them, said corporate leaders and the Singapore Environment Council (SEC) on Friday (Oct 13) amidst ongoing debate on whether supermarkets should impose a fee on consumers.

A levy may lead to undesirable consequences such as more unbagged trash and the public could get used to paying for the plastic bags, causing usage to increase after an initial decline, they cautioned at a conference on ethical consumerism.

Plastic waste has become a massive problem worldwide and environmentalists here have called for measures to curb excessive use of plastic bags, which can end up in waterways and choke marine life.

Singapore generated 824,600 tonnes of plastic waste in 2015, of which 7 per cent was recycled.

Last month, The Straits Times reported that the four main supermarket chains here — NTUC FairPrice, Dairy Farm Group, Prime Supermarket and Sheng Siong — were in talks on whether to implement a plastic bag surcharge.

If an agreement is reached, shoppers at these supermarkets can expect to start paying between five to 10 cents for plastic bags by the middle of next year.

NTUC FairPrice chief executive Seah Kian Peng said he had not personally been part of the talks on charging for plastic bags. “I do not want to consider this as a first resort. I prefer to continue to advocate and encourage shoppers to reduce their use of plastic bags, also to encourage them to bring their reusable bags,” he told TODAY after giving a keynote address at the SEC’s conference.

“I am also concerned about the impact of such surcharges to working families, especially low-income households.”

Legislation is not a silver bullet and charging for plastic bags could result in downstream problems such as individuals throwing unbagged trash down the rubbish chute, he said.

“We all need some plastic bags but all of us can certainly cut down and reduce the use of plastic bags,” he added. FairPrice offers a 10-cent discount to shoppers who bring their own bags and make a minimum purchase of S$10.

Several countries in Asia that legislated a charge on plastic bags have seen mixed results.

According to Taiwan’s Environmental Protection Administration, plastic bag usage dropped 80 per cent a year after a levy (S$0.05 to S$0.14) was introduced in 2002 but rebounded subsequently.

“People got used to paying (for the plastic bags). The (bag fee) does not fix the hearts and minds of people. The solution is not about charging,” SEC chairman Isabella Loh told reporters at the sidelines of the conference.

More than 40 countries, including China, France and Rwanda, have taxed, limited or banned plastic bags. The European Union wants to halve plastic-bag usage by 2019, and further slash usage to 40 bags a year per person at the end of 2025.

In August, Kenya banned the sale of plastic garbage bags. Manufacturers and importers of plastic bags now face fines of up to US$38,000 (S$51,300) or being jailed up to four years, while shoppers risk having their bags confiscated.

Ms Loh said other types of waste – such as plastic bottles and paper receipts – should also be reduced and added consumer education must continue.

“Back in the 1970s, plastic was hailed as an important technology, but it has outlived its usefulness…We must ensure that the community understands why (reducing use) is good for us,” she said.

The SEC has partnered consulting and audit firm Deloitte to study corporates’ and individuals’ plastic consumption patterns. Ms Loh did not share further details on the study, which is expected to complete by the end of this year.

The SEC will launch an app by the end of the year for users to track their carbon footprint.

About 300 corporate representatives, community leaders and students attended the conference at Regent Hotel, where SEC’s annual Singapore Environment Achievement Awards was also held. Award recipients included shipping and logistics firm Orient Overseas Container Line, clean energy solutions provider Sunseap Group, Dunman High School, Northwest Community Development Council, and the Housing and Development Board.