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S’pore’s ‘throwaway culture’ exists because things damaging to the environment are underpriced: NMP

In the past, we recycled and reduced waste out of necessity, because we couldn't afford to waste. Now, we don't bother, because we can.

Joshua Lee | September 4, 09:54 pm

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Singapore’s “throwaway culture” cannot be fully eliminated if we continue to charge too little for materials that are damaging to the environment, said Nominated Member of Parliament (NMP) Walter Edgar Theseira in Parliament on Wednesday (Sep. 4).

We rarely discuss recycling because we are rich

Speaking in support of the Resource Sustainability Bill, which was passed into law on Wednesday, the economics associate professor at Singapore University of Social Sciences noted that the last time recycling was debated in Parliament was in 1983.

The reason? Theseira believes that Singapore has grown wealthy and it can be seen in what he describes as our consumerist and wasteful attitude:

“I submit that recycling was hardly discussed from independence through the 1980s because we were not rich yet.

Recycling is both the necessity of the poor and the luxury of the rich. It was obvious to the post-independence Singaporean that our appliances – our TVs, radios, fridges and stoves, had to be repaired, refurbished, reused for as long as possible.

It was obvious that letting food spoil today meant having less food on the table tomorrow. Within our lifetime, many of us remember a vibrant, privately organised recycling industry for many of the wastes targeted by this Bill. The karang guni men had a good trade buying and fixing our scrap. Even food waste was collected for use by the pig farmers.”

In today’s society, the cost of scrap materials and manufacture of new products is low, but the labour needed to repair or refurbish reusable products is comparatively high.

As an example, Theseira said drink stalls today have stopped collecting and reusing glass bottles because it is cheaper to provide single-use plastics.

The prices of our goods, he said, do not reflect the cost of their disposal.

Theseira pointed out the following two areas where he felt the law can be improved upon:

1) Impose pre-paid disposal fee for electronic and electrical equipment

Under the Act, large producers (those with 300m2 or more of retail space) of electronic and electrical equipment (EEE) will be required to provide in-house collection for e-waste, but smaller retailers are exempted from this requirement.

Theseira said this affects competitiveness in the EEE retail sector, suggesting instead a pre-paid disposal fee at the point of sale of these items.

He acknowledges the possibility that retailers might pass on the costs to consumers, but he said preserving competition among retailers can offset a potential increase in prices.

2) Set limits on packaging

Under the Resource Sustainability Bill, medium and large companies in Singapore with an annual turnover of over S$10 million will be required to report their packaging data and plans for recycling, reusing, and reducing the use of packaging in their products.

This measure is aimed at spurring large companies to reduce packaging to save cost.

Citing the mooncake industry as one that thrives on a lot of packaging to promote branding, Theseira said consumers have wrongly taken attractive packaging as a judge of quality.

“To guard against making packaging appear even more valuable, perhaps we should consider creating limits on the amount of packaging that can be used. This would encourage firms to compete on value, taste, and price instead: what really matters!”

Price effect is a more effective behaviour tool

Theseira added that changing a consumerist culture or behavioural interventions alone will not be enough to tackle the challenge of sustainability.

For most people, he argues, the price effect is the most effective tool in changing behaviour.

“The throwaway culture exists because it is cheap, sir,” he said.

“This basic underpricing and lack of regulation of unsustainable resources must stop. We should not believe that sustainability branding can overcome basic economics… Let’s build a sustainable Singapore, without illusions on the nature of people and of markets.”

Top image via SMU’s Lee Kong Chian School of Business blog.

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