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  • Writer's pictureThe Convergence

How has COVID-19 affected Singapore’s sustainability efforts?

By Lang Si Jie, Editor

In just two decades, solid waste generated in Singapore has increased from 4.7 million tonnes in 2000 to 7.23 million tonnes in 2019, of which 30 per cent of the waste disposed of was plastic. [1]

Singapore’s only landfill, Semakau Landfill, is now expected to be packed to its maximum capacity by 2035. Constrained by our limited land size, new incineration plants and landfills - that will enable us to handle the large amount of waste we produce annually - are also difficult to build.

For Singapore to become a sustainable nation then, we must learn how to curb our excessive consumption habits and make conscious choices to purchase and use more sustainable products and services.

Our city’s throw away culture

Singapore’s recycling rate has been consistently low. In 2019, the Singapore Environmental Council (SEC) found that a total of 473 million single-use plastic items, like takeaway containers, were consumed. Only 4 per cent of plastics were recycled and about 0.9 million tonnes were sent to Semakau Landfill. [2]

Recognising the need to reduce our waste production more significantly, the government has declared 2019 as the ‘Year Towards Zero Waste’. Environmental efforts were stepped up by the government to reduce the amount of waste sent to Semakau Landfill in order to extend its lifespan beyond 2035. In the comprehensive Zero Waste Masterplan, new targets were set to reduce the waste burden on our Semakau landfill.

To curb our reliance on single-use plastics, more than 1,600 premises, including restaurants, hotels, and malls, have been taking steps to encourage consumers to reduce the use of plastic disposables. [3] Selected outlets of certain local supermarkets have also started charging extra for carrier bags.

As a result of the surcharge, 7 in 10 customers that purchased from the participating outlets refused plastic bags or brought their own reusable bags. [4] However, many consumers who are used to the convenience afforded by plastic bags have not been deterred from consuming single-use plastics.

Impact of COVID-19 on sustainability practices

In 2020, the pandemic has threatened to undo the efforts to cut single-use plastics. With circuit breaker measures implemented from April to June, there was a spike in consumers’ reliance on take-out services.

To stay afloat amid the closure of restaurants, the Food and Beverage (F&B) industry turned to home deliveries, which led to an inevitable surge in packaging and disposable waste. Prior to the circuit breaker period, there had been 487 food delivery orders per 100 Singaporean households. This number ballooned to 841 - a 73 per cent increase - during the lockdown. [5]

The National Environment Agency reported that in April, 73,000 tonnes of waste were generated in homes and stores, up 11 per cent from the month before. [6] The first two months of circuit breaker also produced an extra 1,334 tonnes of disposable plastic waste, which is equivalent to the weight of 92 double-decker buses. According to figures from a 2018 SEC study, this was in addition to the 271 million plastic items that Singaporeans would normally use over a span of two months. [7]

Additional precautions taken against the virus have grounded environmental efforts to a halt.

With increasing concerns surrounding hygiene, many food and beverage companies, including brands such as Gong Cha and Starbucks, have discontinued their Bring-Your-Own (BYO) schemes and instead used disposable containers for their deliveries.

There was also a sharp increase in the use of protective plastics like disposable face masks, personal protective equipment and medical gloves, which were deemed as essential products for medical professionals during the pandemic. This contributed to the mounting pile of plastic waste in Singapore and across the globe.

Furthermore, the pandemic has pushed back deadlines for reducing packaging waste for local companies. One such example is seen in the Zero Waste Masterplan, which required mega producers and big supermarkets to report their packaging data and submit their ‘Reduce, Reuse and Recycle’ plans by 2020. [8] However, the deadline for submitting these plans have been postponed to 31 March 2022, giving companies more time and hence leeway to adjust to the renewed reliance on single-use plastics for production and consumption. [8]

Photo: Channel NewsAsia

Opportunities to go green

Despite the challenges that the pandemic has brought to the nation’s sustainability efforts, there is still ample opportunity for businesses to adopt sustainable practices. 87 per cent of Singaporeans indicated that they would reduce or stop purchasing items that had a plastic tax surcharge – against the global average of 78 per cent. Similarly, 39 per cent of Singaporeans said they would bring their own refillable cups to food outlets if offered a discount. [9]

Given such sentiments, food service providers have been experimenting with discounted prices for customers who bring their own containers. One such F&B outlet, Saladstop, has seen a significant reduction in their usage of single-use plastics ever since they imposed a 10 cent surcharge on plastic bags, encouraging customers to bring their own containers. They were able to continue their BYO programs during the pandemic, allaying customers’ worries of contamination as the containers never enter the food preparation area [10].

Other F&B outlets have adopted innovative ways to reduce their usage of single-use plastics. At Plain Vanilla Bakery, customers can borrow sanitised tumblers or containers from Muuse, a company that supplies reusable containers to their partner cafes. [10] Similar services such as barePack, a reusable container lending service, have also taken the lead in partnering food delivery service, Deliveroo, allowing customers to order food in reusable cups and containers.

Furthermore, a poll done by GlobalData in July 2020, which surveyed 5,800 Singaporeans to identify the issues that have become more pertinent to them in the pandemic, revealed that plastic-free packaging was an issue mentioned by 84 per cent of the survey respondents. [9] Such sentiments reveal an altered consumer behaviour, which in spite of the pandemic, reveal increasing saliency on matters like sustainability.

Striving towards Zero Waste

The pandemic has surely brought with it an onslaught of problems, and it has caused tension between the competing priorities of socio-economic problems and environmental concerns.

However, waste and other environmental concerns should be dealt with on a similar footing as socio-economic concerns. Strides made towards building a more sustainable Singapore should not be sidelined or postponed because of the health crisis.

In the long run, relying on food delivery services or opting for takeout might be the new normal. Hence, it has become more important than ever for us to change the way we produce and consume, and consciously integrate sustainable practices into our daily lives.



Si Jie is a Year 3 Communications and New Media major who is currently an Editor for The Convergence. She believes in the importance of staying relevant through engaging with current affairs and is passionate about understanding and writing others' narratives. At other times, you can either find her perusing the New York Times’ Modern Love column or out on the water dragon boating at ungodly hours.


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