The development of plastics has led to a revolution in packaging and consumer goods, and enhanced convenience for billions of people.
Yet, an estimated 8 million metric tonnes of plastic leaks out into our oceans annually, causing major environmental, economic and social costs.
The Ellen MacArthur Foundation warns that on current trajectories, there could be more plastic in the ocean than fish by 2050. Asia is at the heart of the challenge, given that more than half of the plastic leakage into the ocean occurs here. The focus for this year's World Environment Day on Tuesday is on how to tackle plastic pollution.
While Singapore may be a minor contributor to the world's plastic waste problem, we could nonetheless help to set an example of how to tackle this major challenge and help inspire action in other countries in Asia.
But where to start? Research released this week by AlphaBeta, an economic strategy firm, and two social enterprises that focus on plastic waste, The Final Straw and the Cyan Project, suggest a worthwhile initial focus may be on plastic straws.
People in Singapore use an estimated 2.2 million straws per day. If laid end-to-end, Singapore's daily plastic straw consumption would cover the coastline of Singapore more than twice over.
Small single-use plastic items like straws or stirrers are particularly difficult to recycle and, instead, take up space in landfill or leak into the ocean, harming and killing marine life.
The other advantage of focusing on plastic straws is that while they may represent only a small share of total plastic waste, it is a simple challenge for engaging consumers, and can potentially spur broader action.
A large-scale survey of Singaporeans found that more than half of plastic straw consumption occurs in food centres and fast-food outlets.
The principal reason identified by respondents for using plastic straws is that they come with the drinks, rather than by an active choice. This suggests a significant opportunity to reduce plastic straw consumption.
The survey results confirm this. More than 80 per cent of people in Singapore would be willing to go without a straw or use an alternative.
Interestingly, the respondents indicated that regardless of the venue, they would consider going without a straw entirely or using a sustainable alternative such as bamboo or metal reusable straws.
This is good news not only for the environment, but also for businesses.
Eighty-six per cent of respondents stated that they would feel positive about businesses offering sustainable alternatives to plastic straws.
In restaurants and nightclubs, respondents indicated they would be willing to go completely without straws, while in novelty drink stalls and coffee shops, respondents indicated they would be willing to use sustainable alternatives.
There are different options businesses can take to help reduce plastic straw consumption.
Plastic straws could be provided on request, an approach which has reduced consumption levels in other countries around the world. Businesses could also choose to provide sustainable alternatives, like steel, paper or bamboo straws, including on request.
Many places in Singapore are already starting to switch, embracing consumers' thirst for change.
Cities like Seattle and Vancouver have already taken concerted action on this front. From July 1, Seattle will ban disposable plastic straws and cutlery from restaurants, cafes and other food-service businesses.
Even prior to this, Seattle significantly reduced plastic straw consumption through a concerted awareness-raising campaign.
Singapore has the opportunity to lead a similar transformation in Asia.
• Jonathan Tostevin is the founder of The Final Straw, a social enterprise working with cafes and bars in Singapore to reduce plastic waste.
Source: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission.