Singapore, the Garden City, has a dirty secret! It has a plastic problem!

Singapore is a tiny island nation in Southeast Asia boosting a population of 5.6 million. On 11 May 1967, Lee Kuan Yew, then Prime Minister of Singapore, introduced the “Garden City” vision to transform the nation into a city that has abundant lush greenery and clean environment. It was to make life more pleasant for the people and the place a good destination for tourists and foreign investments.

When compared to other cities, Singapore indeed has a lot of trees and plants. Greenery minimises the “harshness” of a concrete jungle, reduces pollution and give us some sort of psychological well-being.

However, as the city develops, so does its impact on the environment. One of its biggest environmental crime was the excessive use of plastic products.

In a study commissioned by the Singapore Environment Council, shoppers in Singapore take 820 million plastic bags from supermarkets each year. That translates to an average of 146 plastic bags for each person. For comparison, the amount of petroleum used to produce these 820 million bags can power 1.9 million car rides across the length of island and back.

For context, each person in England used 133 plastic bags in 2013. That was before the law in the UK required large retailers to charge for plastic bags. The levy on plastic bag introduced in 2015 in the UK caused a decline in the use of single-use plastic bags, with 2.1 billion bags sold between April 2016 and April 2017. Now in 2019, each shopper in the UK uses just 10 bags a year.

And that is not all the study revealed.

Singaporeans also used 467 million polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottles a year and 473 million plastic disposable items such as takeaway containers1.

It is also important to keep in mind that that this study did not include the use of plastic bags from other sources such as small mom-and-pop shops, bakeries and bubble tea shops.

In a separate report, it is found that retailers in Singapore are set up to feed into the country’s obsession with convenience. For example, the bakery chain, BreadTalk, was found to bag each bun or bread into their respective plastic bag, and then use a larger bag to carry all the bagged buns 2.

Compounding on the problem of excessive plastic products use in Singapore is the massive plastic bag wastage.

There are about 420 tonnes of plastic bags being disposed of every day in 2017 alone. And that constitutes about one-fifth of the 94 percent of plastic waste that was not recycled but incinerated.

Union Packaging Industries, which supplies 30 tonnes of plastic bags monthly to retailers in Singapore, sees about 20 percent of the plastic resins wasted because of the adjustment needed throughout the manufacturing process3.

At the rate that Singapore is consuming and wasting plastic products, the nation will soon run out of space to store all that waste. In 2035, it is projected that the country’s sole landfill site, Semakau Island, will be completely full. When that time comes, one starts to wonder where would the country stores its waste.

Singapore is not as green as you think

Singapore is an island city state located at the tip of the Peninsular Malaysia with a population of at least 5.6 million. Ever since gaining its true independence from Malaysia in 1965, the nation has grown rapidly in the early 1970s and 1980s, becoming one of the Asian Tigers in the process. It did so within a single generation under the leadership of the founding prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew.

But all that development is not without cost to the environment.

Since its founding by Sir Stamford Raffles in 1819, the island has lost 95% of its natural forest. Although the government saw the dangers of being highly urbanised back in 1967 and implemented plans to make the country a garden city, it didn’t stop the island from losing over twenty species of freshwater fishes, 100 species of birds. A number of mammals have also gone extinct locally. And that was based on the journal, The Ecological Transformation of Singapore, 1819-1990, published in 1992 by Wiley. There are also 1358 species of native vascular plants but 759 of those are critically endangered based on a report1 published in the Singapore Red Book Data, page 2.

A 2003 analysis, reported by John Pickrell for National Geographic News in an article titled “Singapore Extinctions Spell Doom For Asia?” 2, put our wildlife losses as follow: 4,866 plants, 627 butterflies, 234 fish, 111 reptiles, and 91 mammals. Since 1923, 61 of the 91 known forest species of birds have died out. And that meant that as much as 73 percent of the island’s original biota has been eradicated.

Whatever that is left of island native wildlife, half of those can only be found in the various nature reserves located around the island that take up less than 0.25% of the land area.

It’s not to say the government didn’t do anything. To combat further flora and fauna losses, the government announced the Singapore Green Plan 1992 and Singapore Green Plan 2012. The plans promoted the conservation of the nation’s natural resources, the use of green technology to conserve the environment, both local and globally, and to raise awareness and instill a sense of personal duty among the locals to protect the environment.

Through these plans, Sungei Buloh Nature Park and Labrador Nature Park were promoted and gazetted to be nature reserve in 2001. NParks, the government organisation responsible for Singapore parks and nature reserve, also began reforestation of the Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve. By 2006, 71.6 hectares of land have been reforested.

Even then, environment destruction continues for the sake of development.

To increase the amount of space available for development, Singapore has been reclaiming land since its founding and has added 141 square kilometre of land thus far. Through this, the nation is able to reduce the pressure of having small amount of space to work with, thus allowing it to preserve historical and culturally significant buildings as it further urbanised and fuel its economical growth.

However, these land reclamation works, which have increased in intensity since independence in 1965, have caused the destruction of over 60 percent of our coral reefs and the loss of 95% of its native mangroves.

For past reclamation work, Singapore drew from its own hill but that source ran out decades ago. And land reclamation can’t use desert sand since they are of smaller grains and have smooth surfaces as a result of weathering that made them infeasible for construction use. As a result, the country has to import large quantity of beach and river sand from neighbouring countries. In 2010 alone, the country imported 14.6 million tons of sand3. In 2016, the country imported 38.6 million tons of sand with half of it supplied by Malaysia4.

Although the government did its best to get sands through contractors who must adhere to the legal requirements in which they operate, it didn’t stop the destruction of the source environment since sand are either mined or through dredging the beaches or river. The flora and fauna losses as a result of those activities is not yet quantifiable but it definitely leave marks that raise concerns in various local communities.

As a result, Malaysia, Indonesia, Cambodia and Vietnam halted export of sand to Singapore if not outright banning it.

But it didn’t stop black market sand mining activities. With Singapore buying huge amount of it, it has become a lucrative resource. Blackmarket miners and smugglers targeted many of the islands around Singapore that has only a few or zero inhabitants as well as off limits areas such as nature reserves within countries like Malaysia, Cambodia and Indonesia to mine sand.

One such illegal source for sand came from Nipah Island. It’s an island situated on the borders of Singapore and Indonesia. In 2003, the island disappeared under the sea wave based on a report by the local NGO Wahana Lingkungan Hidup Indonesia 5.

Another questionable source was from the Tatai River in Cambodia. Sand mining from that river have caused veritable traffic jam on the water. Not only that, 270 families who lived along the river reported an estimated 85 percent drop in catch of fish, crab and lobsters and were being forced to eke out a living from small garden plots 6.

Even then, it didn’t stop Singapore from attempting to import sand from other countries outside of Southeast Asia. At the same time, the nation will begin to use new methods of land reclamation. One such method is to recycle excavated material from construction to use in some projects. Another was to pilot a new method that will use less sand in late 2016 78.

It’s a step in the right direction but doesn’t change the fact the damage was already done.

Furthermore, shoppers in Singapore are contributing to making the country less green by their heavy use of plastic-based products.

In a study conducted by the Singapore Environment Council, shoppers take 820 million plastic bags from supermarket each year. That’s an average of 146 plastic bag per person. The petroleum used in their production could have easily powered 1.9 million car rides across the length of the island and back 9.

In comparison, Australia uses 0.53 plastic bag per person while Malaysia uses 0.8 plastic bag 10.

A big part of the problem stems from the people who see using plastic bags as a right instead of privilege. Therefore, they will ask for more plastic bag than they need when they shop.

Not only plastic bags are heavily used in Singapore. Considering that there’s access to clean water in the country, locals continued to buy bottled water instead of bringing their own water drawn from the taps 11 and contribute to the 467 million polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottles used per year. In addition, 473 million polypropylene plastic disposables are used each year 12. The cheapness and convenience of these disposables is undeniable. Food establishments in Singapore buy them in bulk and doesn’t recycle them. Used plastic plates, fork, spoon and cup are thrown into the bin.

So, it’s not surprising that 94% of these plastic wastes are not recycled 13 and most of them just end up in the incinerators and landfills.

Lastly, there’s the electricity production to consider. Right now, the nation generates 95% of its electricity using natural gas. In 2001, electricity production rely heavily on oil. So it’s definitely a step in the right direction but natural gas is still a non-renewable resource, and when burned, generates carbon dioxide that are released into the atmosphere, contributing to global warming.

Smoking is very bad for health and the environment

Cigarette smoking is the bane of any society, causing 6 million deaths every year worldwide while more than 600,000 of those deaths were among non-smokers exposed to second-hand smoke. Even the total number of deaths caused by HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria combined is lower than the total number of deaths caused by smoking as reported in a infographic titled Stop Smoking: It’s Deadly and Bad for the Economy published by The World Bank.

Furthermore, smoking cost the worldwide economy more than US$ 1.4 trillion every year as a result of productivity loss stemming from missed workdays due to smoking-related illness and smoke breaks.

But that is not the only harm brought on by smoking and the wider tobacco industry.

Six trillion cigarettes are produced in 2014. Their production has a major impact on the environment through climate change, water and land use, and toxicity as shown in a report authored by scientists from Imperial College London, which was launched at a meeting of the World Health Organisation Framework Convention on Tobacco Control on 2 October 2018.

The whole lifecycle of green tobacco cultivation, processing, and manufacturing released approximately 84 million tonnes (Mt) of greenhouse gases (GHG) such as CO2 and methane into the atmosphere. It is just to make six trillion cigarettes. And, that makes the annual carbon footprint of tobacco nearly as high as entire countries such as Peru and Israel. A further breakdown revealed the following:

  • The farming stage of tobacco drives more than 70% of the environmental damage from the use of irrigation and fertilisers while also contributing more than 20 Mt of GHG globally.
  • The curing process (to dry tobacco) releases at least 45 Mt of GHG due to the direct burning of wood and coal.
  • The manufacturing stage releases more than 15 Mt of GHG.

Other than warming up the planet, tobacco production also consumes 22 billion tonnes of water. This amount of water consumed could have been better used for other kind of crops that humans actually need such as potato, wheat or rice. 5.3 million hectares of arable land, which could be better used for growing of food crop, are also used by cigarettes factories and to cultivate green tobacco.

In addition, the supply chain for the 6 trillion cigarettes also output 25 million tonnes of solid waste, which include hazardous waste and post-consumer cigarette butts.

And that is not all the harm caused by tobacco.

The smoking of one million cigarettes (which contains about one tonne of dry tobacco) contribute to the following:

  1. Terrestrial acidification that is equivalent to the release of 76 kg of Sulphur Dioxide.
  2. Eutrophication of freshwater and marine that is equivalent to the release of 2.7 kg of Phosphorus and 3.5 kg of Nitrogen respectively.
  3. Human exposure to toxic chemicals that is equivalent to 3,250 kg of 1,4-Dichlorobenzene (1,4-DB), and that is excluding direct health effect from first- and second-hand smoke, and occupational exposure.
  4. Terrestrial exposure to toxic chemicals that is equivalent to 6.1 kg of 1,4-DB
  5. Freshwater exposure to toxic chemicals that is equivalent to 82 kg of 1,4-DB
  6. Marine exposure to toxic chemicals that is equivalent to 79 kg of 1,4-DB

The numbers equally do not paint a pretty picture at an individual level. The total environmental footprint of a smoker who smokes a pack of 20 cigarettes a day for 50 years is as follows:

  1. Depletion of 1.4 million litres of water, which is equivalent to 62 years of water supply for any three people’s basic needs.
  2. Carbon footprint of 5.1 tonnes of CO2, which is offset by planting of 132 trees and allow them to grow for ten years.
  3. Depletion of 1.3 tonnes of fossil fuel, which can be used to power an average household in India for 15 years.

Tobacco consumption is basically robbing the future generations of better life because it contributes to climate change and the depletion of natural resources that leads to conflicts. And, the majority of tobacco are cultivated in developing nations. Combine that with tobacco’s naturally low yield, small producers are trapped in a vicious cycle of poverty.

So unless governments around the world jointly take action to drastically reduce tobacco consumption and encourage the shift from tobacco cultivation to food crop cultivation, the environmental crisis will only get worse. More conflicts would also arise due to water scarcity. And more people will end up homeless, with little to no access to food due to climate change causing low crop yield.

A musing on Human Nature

Humans.

Yes, they are smart. They have the brain power to perform feats of engineerings that no other animals are capable of. They manipulate their environment with their tools to sculpt, shape and move the lands to solve their own perceived problems.

And that’s why throughout time, they have always been a thorn on Mother Nature’s side.

They deploy their brain power only to serve their own needs at the expense of the rest of the animal kingdom. They have destroyed habitats, hunted and consumed their fellow animals till extinction and built their ugly, artificial monstrosities they call home on lands that don’t belong to them. They have released toxic chemical compounds into the oceans and the atmosphere, and caused the planet to warm with greenhouse gases. They also exploited natural resources and leave behind scars on the surface of our planet.

Maybe…just maybe… they do all these things not because they have to. Maybe they do all these things so that the other species don’t survive to ensure they remain the dominant ones. And when all the other animals die out and the Earth is unrecognisable, they will turn on each other and probably enjoy it. Maybe all humans are born psychopaths, lacking the love for the living and the appreciation for what nature has given them.

Life on Earth is highly vulnerable to environmental and atmospheric changes

A recent study by a team of scientists showed that nearly 100% of life was wiped out on Earth around 2 billion years ago, about 200 million years after the end of the Great Oxidation Event (GOE). This mass extinction event saw more of Earth’s biosphere killed off than the one that killed off the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. 1

The GOE was a time when Earth’s atmosphere and shallow oceans experienced a rise in oxygen. It started around 2.4 billion years ago and lasted until around 2 billion years ago. Micro-organisms developed the ability photosynthesise and started altering the chemical composition of the atmosphere. This increase in oxygen concentration provided a new opportunity for biological diversification and changes in the nature of chemical interactions between the various geological substrates, the air and water.

Ultimately, the abundance of oxygen-producing micro-organisms saw all the nutrients needed to create oxygen used up. These organisms died off from starvation. This led to a drop in oxygen levels which then killed off the other lifeforms that came to rely on oxygen for survival and reproduction.

And that is just the first atmospheric change event that we know of which caused mass extinctions. Subsequent mass extinctions were also widely believed to be caused by environment or climate changes brought on by geological processes or external factors such as impact events.

Right now, Earth is widely described to be undergoing the sixth mass extinction event right now. 2 Human activities are the reason why millions of species, plants and animals included, are facing extinctions.

Large number of tropical forests are cleared to make way for our cities and other economical activities such as agriculture. On average, an estimated 18 million acres of forest are removed each year.3 Deforestations damage, if not destroy, the habitats in which animals live. Without proper shelter and the lack of food cause them to die off. This reduces our planet’s biodiversity.

Furthermore, deforestations reduce our planet’s ability to capture carbon from the atmosphere. When the fallen trees are left to rot or burnt, the stored carbon within are released back into the atmosphere. For example, the Indonesia forest fires of 2019 have released 360 million tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, which is more than the carbon dioxide emission by Spain for the whole of 2018. 4

In addition to deforestation, our use of fossil fuels to power our vehicles, machines and electronics also releases carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases such as sulphur dioxide and methane into the atmosphere. All these compounds trap heat close to the planet surface and cause global temperature to rise, which we come to know as global warming.

Global warming has been shown to be the main cause for the increase in the number of severe and intense weather events. 5 There will also be an increase in number of hurricanes, typhoons, cyclones and tornadoes. Such disasters will cost us in terms of lives and resources such as money. Furthermore, rising sea levels will destroy many coastal regions and the communities that depended on it for survival. We will also get either very dry or very wet seasons across the tropical and equatorial regions. Heatwaves will be a common thing.

Food production will be affected with rising temperature. If there is no rain, we can’t grow rice, wheat or corn. Yields will fall dramatically, causing food shortages and exacerbate the divide between the rich and poor. Lifecycle of insects and pollinators such as bees 6, animals and plants will also be affected. Certain crops such as coffee, oranges and apples cannot grow if the climate is not right or when there are no pollinators around. 7

Furthermore, the oxygen levels in our atmosphere could be affected by this climate change.

As described earlier, oxygen did not play a part in the development of life early in Earth’s history until the evolution of organisms that can use carbon dioxide and solar radiation to produce energy and oxygen which we come to know as photosynthesis. This increase in oxygen ultimately led to diversification of life on Earth.

In modern era, we may think that land plants produced most of Earth’s oxygen but it has always been algae and marine microorganisms called phytoplankton that produced more than half of Earth’s oxygen. It is through their combined efforts that life could diversify and spread.

Since the oceans and seas are also warming together with our climate, it is causing a drop in dissolved oxygen levels. 8 The excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will also be absorbed by the oceans over time that will cause them to be more acidic. All these environment changes will put extreme pressure on these algae and phytoplankton. If they are unable to adapt fast enough, they will die off en-mass. This will trigger a chain of events that ultimately affect our atmospheric composition and in turn, life on Earth as we know it. By then, it will be too late to do anything.

And who knows, one day we might just need to carry an oxygen tank behind our backs everywhere we go.