A recent study by a National University of Singapore (NUS) alumni students found an extra 1,334 tonnes of plastic waste generated during the two-month circuit breaker phase.
This is estimated to be the weight of 92 double-decker buses. This comes after a study by the Singapore Environment Council (SEC) found that Singapore uses 473 million plastic disposable items each year.
The increase in plastic waste has been attributed to the following; a rise in the number of delivery and takeaway meals and increased online shopping frequency. This represents about 0.15 per cent of the total plastic waste generated in 2019.
While this might seem minuscule, continued reliance on these means of consumption could potentially see the numbers rise to potentially 5,000 tonnes of extra plastic waste within this year.
Amid the understandable concern over personal hygiene and health during the pandemic, the problem of disposable plastics seems to have taken a backseat. This threatens to undo our progress in fledging initiatives to combat plastic waste and pollution locally, which remains an existential concern.
This will undoubtedly put added pressure on our waste management infrastructure, especially Pulau Semakau’s landfill capacity, which is expected to last till 2035. Much of the plastic waste from food packaging and cutlery tend to be contaminated after use and cannot be recycled.
As for online groceries, they tend to be ‘over packaged’ to ensure product quality and safety is not compromised. It remains to be seen how many plastic bags and packaging material generated from food delivery and online grocery shopping during the circuit breaker were recycled or reused.
Downward trend will continue
The collapsed oil prices have dealt another blow to plastic waste recycling. The global price for recycled plastics has fallen between 30-40 per cent to compete with cheap oil as a production feedstock.
Transboundary shipment of recyclable plastic waste and localised recycling is potentially hindered with stay-home and movement curbs. It is doubtful the downward trend in plastic waste generation from 2018 will continue, and the recycling rate for plastic will deviate much from the four per cent recorded in 2019.
With the circuit breaker measures set to be lifted only in phases and the habit of ordering food online and having it delivered to one’s doorstep becoming a norm, online food delivery and grocery shopping is here to stay.
Together with the findings, the study had proposed several recommendations. They include providing options for food delivery application users to opt-out of requesting cutlery and providing more environmentally friendly takeaway options such as paper packaging.
While these are practical measures, a deeper look indicates it might take more to resolve our plastic conundrum.
The surge in demand due to the circuit breaker has prompted an influx of new delivery platforms. While it has led to more choices and lower fees, it has also exacerbated single-use disposable plastic products.
Beyond Foodpanda, GrabFood and Deliveroo, at least 10 other new platforms have entered the food delivery market, many over the last couple of months. Increased competition can lead to more eco-centric services.
For instance, it allows delivery platforms to provide more customised options where customers can opt out from requesting cutlery, request minimal packaging and target eco-conscious consumers.
On the flip slide, increased competition puts pressure on profit margins. Environmentally friendly takeaway options tend to be costlier and eat into profit margins of food delivery services.
Food delivery platforms will struggle
Online delivery platform revenues are dependent on commissions from eateries and delivery fees from customers. While the survey found 97 per cent of respondents being supportive of environmentally friendly takeaway options, only 31 per cent were willing to bear the additional cost.
With competition stiff, food delivery platforms will struggle to park this cost under commissions or customer delivery fees and may end up absorbing it without compromising their payment to riders. In the absence of regulatory frameworks, the more pressing business concerns for these food delivery platforms are customer acquisition and increased convenience.
Creating increased convenience can lead to increased use in single-use plastic disposables.
With the exponential growth in the number of food delivery platforms and industry market revenue estimated to be around S$650 million this year, it is highly opportune and timely for packaging guidelines to be issued for food delivery businesses.
The guidelines, issued by relevant ministries, must detail best packaging practices and cover how disposable cutlery must be priced. This ensures a level playing field for food delivery platforms and increases transparency among consumers on service charges for disposable cutlery levied on them.
Singapore has abstained from phasing out the use of single-use plastic or imposing additional charges. But the boom of food delivery platforms could represent a starting point to tackle this issue, given it potentially being the most significant contributor to plastic waste generation in Singapore.
This can subsequently be rolled out to online grocery shopping platforms. The extended producer responsibility (ERP) laws for electronic waste come into effect in 2021.
Under this regulation, companies must collect and treat their e-waste and report the amount and type of packaging they use. It is pertinent we start exploring how this framework can be implemented in the food delivery ecosystem.
The reporting of packaging waste was mandated in 2020. Still, it must be extended to all forms of plastic waste to have a more holistic approach to managing and mitigating plastic waste.
With no legislation on using single-use plastic in sight any time soon, producers and consumers have to bear the burden and responsibility of mitigating the environmental externalities generated from plastic waste.
While most Singaporeans seem not inclined to pay for single-use plastics or plastic bags, the reality is companies cannot do it alone. Consumers play a vital role in the plastic waste management ecosystem by exercising eco-conscious purchasing decisions. — @green
Kavickumar Muruganathan is a sustainability professional and tutors on environmental economics and public policy.