January 31, 2022
A New Start Without Plastic
One of the most pressing environmental issues of our generation is plastic pollution.This phenomenon is further aggravated by poor waste management where garbage collection systems are either inefficient or nonexistent. In a more developed nation, low recycling rates and excessive reliance on plastic containers for food packaging and various other usages leads to not only an environmental concern but also creates a social issue.
Single-use plastics account for 40% of the plastic produced yearly with only a lifespan of a few minutes to hours before they are discarded. However, these discarded plastic bags and food wrappers may persist in the environment for centuries causing a series of cataclysmic implications on marine life, the environment, and the global society.
As a result of the global plastic waste crisis, countries and governments are beginning to take proactive action.Several government interventions have recently surfaced, such as strict bans on plastic usage and more regulated recycling policies.
While outright prohibition is quite common in government interventions, innovative solutions are on the rise. Korea has set an example by establishing an efficient recycling system, which comprises of specific guidelines. Citizens who violate them will face a fine of1 million won. Aside from the hefty fine, the recycling system is well-organised and effectively reduces waste as citizens are well-informed about recyclable versus non-recyclable items. Most Korean households would have separate recycling bins and recycling trucks scheduled. Recyclable materials include papers, plastics, glass bottles, styrofoam, and cans. There are exceptions such as water, shells, bones, and seeds are not allowed to be recycled in Korea.
Another intervention is the complete banning of plastics implemented by multiple countries such as Europe, the USA, and Peru, especially the ban of microbeads in the UK. Microbeads can be found in cosmetics or personal care products and approximately 100,000 microbeads enter the ocean through the drainage system per shower, resulting in harm to marine life. Microbeads are one of the most hidden forms of plastic that are overlooked.
In Singapore, recycling bins are placed in every neighbourhood and collected multiple times per week. However, because the guidelines are broad, it may result in non-recyclables being placed in the bins and hence not able to effectively increase the recycling rate inSingapore.
In addition, the usage of styrofoam containers for takeaways has always been consistent and often inevitable because more often than not, convenience triumphs. While many acknowledges the adverse effects styrofoam has on the environment, due to the deeply ingrained culture in Singapore, it remains as a huge challenge to curb the use of styrofoam. However,Singapore could potentially draw inspiration from San Diego which has banned the usage of styrofoam for all food and drink containers, egg cartons, ice chest coolers, aquatic toys for swimming pools, and mooring buoys and navigation markers.
Being a hot and humid country all year round, it is no surprise that Singapore has an ever-growing market for cold beverages in which plastic straws are inevitably used. For instance, in 2018 alone, 2.2million plastic straws were used and disposed. One can only imagine the severity our actions have on the environment. However, the line of action taken by several restaurants and companies in Singapore, such as Raffles, Fairmont as well as leading tourist attractions, to phase out single used plastic straws had a significant impact and lends momentum to the plastic-free straw movement.
Another local initiative would be the development of Polyethylene terephthalate (PET) aerogels, which are converted from plastic bottle wastes by a team of engineering students at the NationalUniversity of Singapore (NUS) ("Meet the Innovator Battling Plastic Waste in Singapore: Hai Minh Duong", 2022). Acknowledging the exponentially high wastage of plastic, that is 1.76 billion plastic items per year out of which less than 20% are recycled, PET aerogel was developed. Its usage includes heat and sound insulation, CO2 and dust particle filtering, personal care such as diapers, medical devices, and oil and non-polar liquid absorption. PET aerogel bottles reportedly take a shorter time to degenerate as compared to regular PET bottles with an estimate of 500 years to degrade.
Therefore, it is evident that there is a plethora of detrimental consequences which stems from our usage of plastic. It is critical to start exploring alternative options to begin shifting to a plastic-free lifestyle.
To sum up, it is hopeful to look at the global initiatives to reduce society’s dependency on plastic such as by completely banning single-use plastic bags in Canada, styrofoams in San Diego and systematising the process of recycling in countries like South Korea. Innovations such as the PET aerogel is also a creative solution to reduce plastic waste and its detrimental effects on the environment. However, a more proactive and passionate initiative from the society itself is needed to drive a sustainable change. Looking at the current measures in place to curb plastic waste, are we really doing enough?Could we possibly have a fresh start without plastics?
This article is a collective contribution from a group of TemasekPolytechnic student volunteers.
(Rusmita Anba, Safiyyah Adilah, Clement Toh, Nur Mashitah, Zenaide Tohand Raifana Humairah)