I got to meet some great people doing great work at HubQuarters at *SCAPE today. My initial contact put me in touch with AL, one of the co-founders of both The Living! Project and Alpha Biofuels. One of The Living! Project’s major initiatives is an urban farm, ComCrop at the National Youth Council Academy Greens. (I’m so glad to see things like ComCrop happening in Singapore! Being the Sustainability intern focusing on local foods at Vassar, I get the chance to talk to local farmers; academically dabbling in Urban Geography has allowed me to research urban gardening in the U.S… Seeing these same principles taking root in home soil is really wonderful.)
AL brought up a question that I had debated months prior to coming back home: Are bio-composite plastics really any better for the environment, in Singapore’s context? After all, all waste in Singapore is incinerated at waste-to-energy plants before sent to Semakau Landfill, as I’d learned from my correspondence with NEA (National Environment Agency). Because we don’t have large-scale composting facilities, compostable tableware doesn’t seem to be very relevant. But the bio-composite plastics my project works with do not just boast compostability, but also a more sustainable cradle-to-grave process overall. From raw materials (whether using wastes from agricultural activities, lumber from FSC-certified sustainable forests, or recycled plastics, for example) to processing (more energy-efficient manufacturing processes) to the less hazardous materials released when incinerated, bio-composite plastics leave behind a 33% smaller carbon footprint compared to conventional plastics (virgin polypropylene) (SIMTech publication by Rugrungruang, Ng and Teo). However, AL’s point was that conventional plastics like Styrofoam actually produce more usable energy when incinerated in our waste-to-energy plants (and he would know, having developed a waste-to-energy system himself at Alpha Biofuels!)
… It’s a complicated debate and I don’t have the technical knowledge to find an answer. Perhaps a study weighing the energy gains from incinerating conventional plastics against the gains from incinerating bio-composite plastics should be done. Then those energy gains should be incorporated into the carbon footprint calculations of both types of plastics for a more thorough comparison?
AL said that promoting bio-composite plastic disposables is just fighting the same battle on the battlegrounds that plastic-advocates have created. We ought to be thinking on the level of reusables, not just limiting ourselves to disposables – “aim high!” I was inspired by this and decided to rethink certain aspects of my project aims.