A supermarket plastic bag serves its real purpose for 30 minutes, the duration of a journey in Singapore. In a drink, a straw is utilised for just 5 minutes. The use of a plastic stirrer is even more short-lived: all of 10 seconds.
These items have fleeting lifespans, but they outlive us by a long margin - 400 years, to be exact.
Left in our environment, plastics affect ocean health and biodiversity, including corals, seabirds and endangered species. The problem does not simply end there.
Before they even enter our homes, plastics already contribute to climate change.
Globally, the manufacturing of plastics consumes the same amount of fossil fuel as the entire aviation industry.
We are living plastic in every way: eating, drinking and even breathing it.
Around the world, microplastics have been found in the guts of fish, in tap water samples and even in air pollution.
CONVENIENCE NUMBS COMMON SENSE
Little is being done to address this. There was a huge public outcry when the four largest supermarkets in Singapore floated the idea of a plastic bag charge. Recently, the Government announced a decision against a plastic bag ban, highlighting incineration as a solution.
In this all-or-nothing debate that focuses solely on plastic bags, we are missing the point: that we continue to have a major problem with plastic use.
Meanwhile, Singapore generated more than 800 million kg of plastic waste last year, only 6 per cent of which was recycled.
The rest of the world is far ahead in taking action on plastic waste.
More than 40 countries have plastic bag bans or taxes in place, including China, Rwanda and Italy. Just across the Causeway, Johor is set to ban plastic bags and polystyrene by this year. Last year, 39 governments announced new commitments to reduce the amount of plastic going into the sea, according to reports.
By not taking action to reduce plastic's widespread use, we are perpetuating this global problem. It is high time for a mindset overhaul on plastic in Singapore.
REJECT 'USELESS' PLASTIC
Rather than an all-or-nothing approach, the key lies in understanding what we should use less of, and what we can and should eliminate.
There are "useless" or unnecessary plastics - those that provide a few extra minutes of convenience but are disposed of after use. Most plastic straws, lids, cups and stirrers fall into this category. Refusing these useless plastics is an easy step to cutting down on plastic use.
There are plastics that are useful that we can still reduce. A case in point: plastic bags.
Singapore's current usage of plastic bags borders on the excessive. Each person in Singapore is estimated to use about 13 plastic bags a day, way more than any household would need for trash disposal.
Alternatives in the form of reusables are widely available in the market today. A recent study by the National Environment Agency has found that a reusable bag replaces the use of 125 single-use plastic bags in a year.
A plastic bag charge can be an effective way to reduce plastic use. Consumption of single-use plastic bags fell by 95 per cent when Ireland introduced a levy in 2002.
In Singapore, lifestyle store chain Miniso witnessed a 75 per cent drop in plastic bag take-up rate after it implemented a 10 cent plastic bag charge in April last year.
NOT ALL PLASTICS ARE TRASH
Even as individuals focus on using less plastic, a wider systemic change is needed to make plastics more useful. Globally, 95 per cent of plastics worth up to US$120 billion (S$157 billion) is discarded after the first use.
Effective recycling ensures that we do not lose economic value from this useful material.
Plastic packaging cannot be eliminated, but it needs to be recovered.
In Singapore, packaging makes up a third of domestic waste. But not enough is being done to hold businesses accountable for the plastics they introduce into the market. In countries such as Japan, for instance, there are laws in place to ensure that businesses do their part to recycle.
Separating plastic waste at the point of disposal also enhances recycling. Currently, Singapore does not require plastics to be segregated from other types of waste. This model undermines recycling efforts and instead incentivises incineration, including that of plastics.
The Republic has made a name for itself globally in recovering value from precious resources. We do this for paper and even the water we drink. Why aren't we treating plastics the same way? Incineration should be the last solution only when all other options are unavailable.
STOP TRASH TALKING, START FIXING
We have limited time to turn things around. With the looming global plastics crisis, business-as-usual cannot apply.
Businesses need to be held accountable for used plastic, however useful its purpose. This includes being responsible for the entire life cycle of plastics, from packaging to recovery after use.
On a national level, channels and infrastructure need to be in place to effectively enable recycling by businesses and individuals.
Incentives encourage manufacturers to take more responsibility, while disincentives like a plastic tax help spur much-needed behaviour change.
To expedite the move towards a more sustainable future, individuals should also play their part by using less plastic, and supporting business and government measures that help address this issue.
We need to stop pushing the responsibility between individuals, businesses and the Government.
Everyone needs to step up and take action for a problem we will share with the next 16 generations.
• Elaine Tan is the chief executive officer of WWF-Singapore.
Source: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission.