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.