Cracking down on plastics: What does it all mean? (June 30)

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I had the chance to get an inside look at the Tuas Incineration Plant last Thursday! It was fascinating! Here’s a sneak peak before I post more about it later:

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A truck unloading at the waste reception area.

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My best friend, Styrofoam.

Anyway! On to plastics. I’m definitely not an authority on this, but I’ve done a little secondary research around the web to find out more about plastic waste for the purpose of this project. Here’s a little of what I’ve found out.

What happens to Singapore’s plastic waste*?
*Noting that waste is not waste unless it is wasted! We can give plastic a new lease of life by recycling it :).
According to the Ministry of the Environment and Water Resources’ Key Environmental Statistics 2012, 730,000 tonnes of plastic waste was generated in 2010, with a recycling rate of just 11% (only 2% up from 2008). Plastic that is not recovered for recycling gets incinerated and landfilled.

How does plastic waste get recycled?
Paraphrasing Zero Waste SG’s great guide to recycling plastic,

Plastic waste can be divided into pre-consumer and post-consumer plastic waste.
Pre-consumer: Plastic scraps generated by companies during the manufacturing of products. These plastics are usually easier to recycle as they are clean and homogeneous.
Post-consumer: Generated by consumers after use. They are more difficult to collect, easily contaminated with food, and not homogeneous.

Whether pre- or post-consumer, once collected, plastic waste is separated into seven categories developed by the US Society of the Plastics Industry (SPI):

1. PET (Polyethylene terephthalate) – Used for water bottles, soft drink and cooking oil bottles, and meal trays.
2. HDPE (High density polyethylene) – Used for milk and detergent bottles.
3. PVC (Polyvinyl chloride) – Used for plastic pipes, food trays, shrink wrap, and bottles.
4. LDPE (Low density polyethylene) – Used for plastic bags and bin liners.
5. PP (Polypropylene) – Used for bottle caps, margarine tubs, and meal trays.
6. PS (Polystyrene) – Used for food containers, egg cartons, vending cups, plastic cutlery, and protective packaging for electronic goods.
7. OTHER – Includes any other plastic that does not fall into the above categories.

After sorting, plastic waste is baled and exported overseas for recycling. There are also plastic recycling companies in Singapore that sort and process plastic waste into small pellets to be used as feedstock for making plastic products.

Why should we reduce and recycle our plastic waste?

1. It is estimated that 4% of the world’s annual oil production is used as feedstock for plastics production.
2. It is estimated that an additional 3-4% of the world’s annual oil production is used for the manufacturing of plastics.
3. When incinerated, plastics release CO2 and potentially toxic gases such as dioxins.
4. Plastics are non-biodegradable and take hundreds of years to break down. When they are landfilled, they take up valuable landfill space that Singapore just doesn’t have.

What are bio-plastics?

Bio-plastics are an alternative to conventional plastics, derived from renewable biomass sources, such as agricultural by-products and corn starch.

It is argued that the production and use of bio-plastics are more sustainable activities than the production and use of conventional plastics because bio-plastics use less petrol-based feedstock and emit less CO2 and no/fewer toxic gases when incinerated.

It’s important to ask how much non-renewable energy and water goes into powering farm machinery, irrigating farms, producing pesticides and fertilizers, and transporting and processing crops. Only then can a more accurate comparison between conventional plastics and bio-plastics be done. (I’m personally a bigger fan of the use of agricultural by-products because it seems to avoid these issues.)

There are different types of bio-plastics, each with their own pros and cons. As I mentioned, some of them make use of agricultural by-products, whilst others use crops grown for the production of bio-plastics. Some are made purely from biomass sources (polylactic acid, PLA), whilst others are a mixture of biomass and conventional plastic (such as polypropylene, PP). Certain bio-plastics are biodegradable and compostable, others are only biodegradable, and some are neither. The recycling of bio-plastics is in its infancy – it can only really take off when the necessary recycling infrastructure is put in place. In Singapore, bio-plastics cannot yet be recycled.

A good look into all these factors is needed before we categorically declare all bio-plastics as the Next Green Thing. We need to look at life cycle assessments that take into account comprehensive cradle-to-grave energy/water/land usage, greenhouse gas emissions, and toxic waste emissions. An example is this University of California, Santa Barbara study that assesses the life cycles of plastic yogurt containers made of polystyrene (PS) versus plastic yogurt containers made of PLA. Its major finding is that the PLA containers release 48% less carbon than PS ones, providing the basis for Stonyfield Farm’s decision to switch over to PLA yogurt containers.

Here’s more from Stonyfield Farm and more about other types of sustainable packaging.

So what’s the deal with biodegradability and compostability?

First, a distinction should be made between the two: biodegradability simply refers to the ability to be consumed by microorganisms and decomposed back down into compounds found in nature, whilst compostability refers to the ability to biodegrade quickly in a composting pile. A composting facility optimizes surrounding conditions, i.e. humidity, temperature and lighting, so that waste can be efficiently converted into humus, which can then be used as a nutrient-rich fertilizer for farming.

Singapore incinerates all waste that is not recycled, and landfills the remaining ashes. There are no large-scale composting facilities in Singapore* (since the recent closing down of IUT Global), though some great groups have taken it upon themselves to start their own compost piles (big applause!). As such, I’ve been asked a number of times if biodegradable and compostable food packaging products are even relevant here.

I believe they are, but not because of those properties in particular. Olive Green’s cornware, for example, may be 100% biodegradable, but it is because it uses less petrol-based feedstock (it’s 90% biomass-based, and 10% plastic) and releases less COand no toxic gases when incinerated, that I consider it a promising alternative to conventional pure plastic.

*At the Tuas Incineration Plant, I asked the operations engineer leading the tour whether another food waste-to-energy recycling plant might be in the works for the future. He said there might be plans for one – I certainly hope so! I’ve had the chance to eat apples grown in an orchard that uses the compost collected from my house at Vassar, and I hope to one day do something similar in Singapore :).

D.I.L.O. M.I.L.O. DINOSAUR* (June 20)

*Milo is a popular chocolate malted milk drink, and a Milo Dinosaur is a local specialty in Singapore. It’s a cup of Milo served with an extra heaping of undissolved Milo powder on top for extra kicks. One level up from that is the Milo Godzilla, which is topped with ice cream or whipped cream.

Today I met with a former member of NUSSU SAVE who’s now working at the NEA, particularly with the Keep Singapore Beautiful Movement. He was extremely helpful and one of the most encouraging people I’ve come across in this project so far!

I was certainly not banking on any possibility of him saying to me, “Yes, I’ll give you full access to a hawker centre of your choice for your project!” And I was quite right not to be so disillusioned: running hawker centres is a difficult job, and there are many stakeholders involved who I have honestly not thought hard enough about. In short, continuing to pursue a hawker centre would put me up against a lot of obstacles. I’d love to face those obstacles if I had a year to do the project! But I can’t, and I have to do this project right (we are working with real people here!). And doing it right means scaling it down and steering it in a different direction.

The person I met with has had a lot of experience implementing community projects. Besides running through some key points of effective project design with me, he introduced me to a bunch of tools and models to better conceptualize the sociological/behaviour change aspect of my project. One of them was nicknamed D.I.L.O. M.I.L.O. (“a day in the life of…” and “a moment in the life of…”). It’s used to graph out a typical day in the life of one of your key stakeholders, with time (progression of the day) on the x-axis, and level of happiness on the y-axis. It allows you to examine where the high and low moments lie in that person’s day, and to leverage the high moments and tackle the low moments. Another very useful model was the habit loop:


The theory posits that a habit loop forms when there is a cue (something that triggers the habitual action), followed by the routine (the habitual action itself), which is followed by a reward (a positive reinforcement that results from the routine that makes the habit loop continue). Rewards are most effective the more positive and immediate they are. (And they’re usually most sustainable when they don’t rely on constructed monetary incentives.)

My friendly contact also recommended a couple great books to me as well, both written by Chip and Dan Heath.



In Made to Stick, the authors investigate why some ideas thrive while others die. How do we improve the chances of worthy ideas?

Switch is about uniting the two halves of our minds, the emotional and the rational, in order to achieve lasting change, in our companies, communities and in our own minds.

It was really wonderful to see that there are those in governmental capacities who are thinking about people from very human, psychological and sociological standpoints rather than seeing people as merely as taxpayers or statistics for national demographics. There are those who think young people like me are worth their time, and I was grateful for that.

I was definitely given a lot to think about from that meeting. Much more to come! 🙂

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Could you be your own “dabaowala”? (June 19)

The very first café is on board! Café Saladier is a small café with a big vision to be the nutritional brand of the future with people who have heart and a conscience. Its chef/general manager certainly embodied that vision when we sat down to talk about the project (and much, much more – including our personal everyday battles trying to (lovingly and compassionately, of course) get people to wake up their idea about health, sustainability, freedom of choice, etc.). Be sure to like their page if you like what they stand for! Here’s to more conversations like today’s with other passionate pioneers.

While Googling various waste management solutions in urban settings, I came across Mumbai’s mind-bogglingly efficient dabbawala system. The 5000 dabbawala workers collect freshly-cooked lunches in lunch boxes (most commonly, tiffin carriers) from nearly 200,000 homes across Mumbai in the morning, and deliver them by lunch time to the designated offices and schools of their owners! The dabbawalas typically use hand-drawn carts, bicycles, and Mumbai’s local trains as they cart the dabbas (“boxes”) to and from their destinations.


We could learn so much from zero-waste practices like this! I’m not saying this particular lunch delivery system is perfect (I don’t know enough about what working conditions are like for the dabbawalas, or what relationships this system reinforces (i.e. who stays home to make the lunches and who gets served their lunch?), but it’s certainly an alternative to the quick-and-easy-fix culture of heading out to lunch from the office, taking away from some restaurant or food centre, parking back down in front of the computer to catch up on extra emails during lunch hour while scarfing down food from a Styrofoam box.

What do you say? Would a “dabaowala” system work in Singapore?

A Learning Curve (June 18)

Things are taking a bit of a different turn now, and I’m not banking on a food court or hawker centre being the venue for the project anymore. This project has come with a big learning curve so far: change can be very difficult to encourage, and a programme to put change on the agenda – to even get the conversation started – can be very difficult to design effectively.

But we have to start somewhere! And I applaud the people who have committed themselves to being the starters: the founders and employees of greentech businesses and eco-social enterprises staying afloat in a world economy designed to keep them at the bottom; the environmental advocates who write and re-post vital information that has been strategically hidden from the public eye; the consumers doing what they can each day, keen to build new habits; the student groups, teachers, youth mentors… I’ve met so many inspiring people so far, whose stories are all woven together by a common green thread. Even though the project won’t be what I initially envisioned it to be, I’ve learned invaluable things from the people I’ve met – their personal journeys and struggles, and the realities they’ve faced working in the green sector.

Today I met up with my contact from Envirochem, whose Good As Gold multi-purpose cleaner is completely and rapidly biodegradable (and doesn’t have an ingredients list that reads like a recipe for household poison). She was really encouraging and wants to do what she can for the project :).

In other news, I’ve started seriously reaching out to cafés as an alternative plan. A few have been responsive so far, and I’m hopeful that this is the final direction this project is going to take. The plan is to create a network of cafés around Singapore, who, for two weeks, will 1) use only eco-friendly disposables for their takeaway, home delivery and catering orders, 2) encourage their regulars to bring their own reusable containers in for takeaway orders, and 3) use Good As Gold in their kitchens. It’ll basically be a chance to see how things could be if we overcame the barriers to acting green, including the financial barriers and the habitual/behavioural barriers. It’ll be a chance to stir up a double-think impulse in whoever comes across the project. Each café might be small on its own, but I’m hoping a network of cafés will turn the project into something more meaningful.

Soaps, Schools, Shiva, and Surveys (June 13 and 14)

A wonderful lady I met at *SCAPE last week called today and we set up a meeting for next week. She works for a company that sells green cleaning products and is interested in contributing both her volunteer time and her company’s products (as free gift incentives) for the project!

Also managed to get a meeting with my National Youth Council mentor’s contact at the NEA for next week! I’ll be talking to him about the possibility of using a hawker centre as the site of my project.

These past two days, I’ve been reaching out to quite a few schools (not my own alma mater because it’ll be closed during the project period) as well as to SCWO and AWARE, adapting the project to work in both types of settings.

For the schools, I emphasized instilling environmental responsibility in young people and encouraging environmentally-minded behaviour. For SCWO and AWARE, I spoke about ecofeminism* and the importance of incorporating environmental responsibility into organization cultures.
*The idea that exploitation of the earth and exploitation of women are interconnected. The contributions that women make and the contributions that natural resources make to society are both not recognized by the dominant capitalist-reductionist patriarchal worldview. Both women and the earth are victims of the oppressive forces of that worldview. Listen to trailblazing ecofeminist Dr Vandana Shiva’s talks at Vassar here!

SCWO replied warmly almost right away, but said that they already use proper plates and cutlery for their events (yay!). Their partner café also uses eco-friendly disposables when it has to (yay again!). This is great news, but it also means I’m going to have to keep casting the net wider for my project.

School #1 got back to me the day after I contacted them, saying that they love the project, but they only operate one of their canteens, which is the one for their boarding school. Most people dine in at the canteen and they don’t use disposable boxes for sandwiches, cold meals etc., and staff usually use their own reusable containers already when they need to take away (I really hope this is true!). Again, this is great to hear, but not that great for securing a backup plan.

Still with the hope that Food Court Operator C will give me the green light (pun entirely intended…), I finished designing the stallholder survey today, in Chinese and in English. A big thank you to NUSSU SAVE for sharing their survey designs and experiences! I’ve also drafted a customer survey for use in the near future.

(a few hours later…)
I just hit the smallest outlet of Food Court Operator C,  and managed to casually speak to about six of the eight stallholders about their takeaway packaging (with permission from the initially wary but friendly branch manager).

Preliminary surveying was really very fun :). Some stallholders were pretty amused, haha. One was extremely busy and I had to improvise and condense my survey into one question, yelling (politely!) over a counter: “你们一天大概用几个塑料杯子?”

Overall, I found out that the ordering of disposables and all the finances relating to disposables are ultimately taken care of by the management of Food Court Operator C, which certainly streamlines things in terms of communication. What must be noted is that all the takeaway materials are printed with Operator C’s logo and some materials I observed were outside the range of products that Bio-composite Products Manufacturer #2’s catalogue displays. However, I was very glad to see that most stalls already used paper boxes rather than Styrofoam boxes.

In any case, I now have some approximate numbers that I can summarize and try to make some sense of for Bio-composite Products Manufacturer #2!

Plan B…and C and D and E (June 12)

Food Court Operator A just contacted me with some less-than-stellar news: they were extremely gracious and respectful, but told me they regretfully wouldn’t be able to participate in the project. The main reason, according to my contact at Food Court Operator A, is that they’ve just started getting on board with NEA’s Tray Return Initiative, and don’t want to overload the public with too many campaigns at once, wishing to concentrate on one at a time. My contact did have lots of words of encouragement though and said she hoped to work together in the future – I really hope she wasn’t just saying that to be nice!

I also just got off a phone call with one of the managers at Food Court Operator B, and they pretty much said the same thing :/. She’d spoken with their operations team, who said they were tied up with other initiatives, especially the Tray Return Initiative. It was just bad timing, she said. I do think the Tray Return Initiative is a great effort, what with how it addresses social graces and respect for food centre workers… but how frustrating! It kind of reminds me of how charities and different social causes are forced to “compete” against each other for the donor’s dollar.

My contact from Operator C has said she’ll get back to me by the end of the week, so we’ll see where things go from there!

To be on the safe side though, I’m building up some backup plans. (My project isn’t part of an official internship programme – it’s an independently-designed project that just came out of a conviction that this was an important issue to pursue. I knew from the start that I’d have to work extra, extra hard and be flexible enough to adapt as quickly as possible to whatever unforeseeable things cropped up.)

Some alternative options:

  • Event-specific or organization-specific catering
  • Individual restaurants, particularly those with a social and environmental consciousness spin
  • Talk to NEA about working with a hawker centre
  • Office canteens
  • University canteens

Fingers crossed! As Joey said, in that one episode of Friends (‘The One Where Rosita Dies’), “If you want something enough and your heart is pure, wondrous things can happen!”

Bio-composite Products Manufacturer #2 and the Singapore Environment Council (June 11)

Meeting with Bio-composite Products Manufacturer #2

Great meeting today! It was so heartening to speak with the business development manager of Bio-composite Products Manufacturer #2 – he was excited about the project and seemed quite happy to meet me :). I had drawn up a plan of action prior to the meeting, listing out all the different ways our conversation could go and how best to negotiate things so that they’d settle for only charging stallholders however much they would normally pay for two weeks’ worth of disposables. Before I could even make that proposal, though, they said they would be happy to provide the disposables needed at no charge! It’s definitely not set in stone yet – some key people still need to be convinced, but my hopes are high. They’re going to get back to me next week.

It feels like things are going somewhere! But I definitely cannot rest until I get a food centre on my side for sure.

Meeting with the Singapore Environment Council

The Eco-Food Court initiative that SEC bravely started a few years ago hasn’t progressed quite as much as I had hoped. There are apparently now three university campus food courts and one community centre food centre certified as eco-food courts. The one non-school, non-governmental public eco-food court was closed due to low traffic (granted, the entire shopping centre that housed the food court always seemed to be an unpopular destination anyway). SEC is focusing their efforts on Project Eco-Office, and can’t dedicate as much time and resources to furthering the Eco-Food Court initiative at this point. What they were able to provide me with were some past project to research and some potential contacts. I learned that SEC is a well-respected and innovative organization, but also one that, as a non-profit and non-governmental org, has limited capacity to effect major change countrywide. (I really need to be talking to the big (green) guns: the NEA.)

Young ChangeMakers mentors (June 7)

After talking to AL, I was all revved up about social change and getting people to think reusable, not disposable. However, conversations with my dad and debates that were running through my head made me wonder if our society was “ready” for that kind of behavioural change yet.

Just imagine…
Mrs and Mr Lim finally find seats at a food centre. They quickly tissue-pack-umbrella-chope their seats and take a glance at their table number so they know where to direct food vendors. However, they get distracted by the colourful decal displayed on the table: “Let’s bring our own containers for zero waste dabao!” Mrs and Mr Lim exchange a glance…
“Hah? Now container also must bring ah? Biang eh, next time you tell me must fry my own bee hoon some more!” 

…Maybe it’d be a better idea to stick with the eco-friendly disposables in tandem with launching a bring-your-own container campaign? That way, even if many people aren’t actually bringing their own containers to dabao, at least they’ll be experiencing eco-friendly disposables first hand, prompting them to do a double-take and a “double-think” about their actions.

Anyway, today I met with my two mentors from the National Youth Council Young ChangeMakers programme. They were awesome! One of them used to be part of NUSSU SAVE (National University of Singapore Students’ Union, Students Against the Violation of the Earth) and had a lot of valuable experience and contacts for me to draw on, and the other is a very creative, artistic outside-the-box thinker. They played off each other’s energies very well and we had a great brainstorming session.

Really rough notes from our brainstorming:

  • BYO Container campaign
    • A monetary incentive?
    • Free gift (sponsored)
    • Charity (i.e. bring your own container and a company will pledge to donate however much to a certain charity)
    • Company-specific campaigns?
  • Catering/event-specific
    • Pink Dot 2014! (Not applicable for this project right now, but wouldn’t it be awesome?)
    • SCWO [Singapore Council of Women’s Organisations, where I interned last year]
    • How to make this not an isolated effort, but one that reaches a wider audience and has a future?
  • Food outlet-specific

One of my mentors said she’d link me up with someone from NEA’s Keep Singapore Beautiful Movement, someone from NUSSU SAVE, and give me some learning material on how to foster sustainable behaviour and how to design and implement Knowledge, Attitude and Practice (KAP) surveys.

I’m getting brain fatigue from all the mental running-around-in-circles – anticipating all the barriers I could face! Brainstorming is great and totally necessary, but it’s kind of like how you have to completely empty out your closet and make a giant mess before reordering it in a way that makes any sense. And I’m still searching for the sense! And also the cents… But for real, sometimes I curse the capitalist economy. It shouldn’t be more expensive to be environmentally responsible, but it is – systemically and counterintuitively so.