The pandemic has been wonderful for our planet, at least that’s what a litany of posts on social media would have us believe. As virus fears forced humans inside, images of crystal clear canals and animals frolicking in abandoned city plazas went viral, alongside statements of the largest ever annual fall in global CO2 emissions

Except the photos and stats didn’t provide the full picture, as while lockdowns have temporarily curbed our poisonous output, scientists recently stated that it’s nowhere near enough to limit the long-term oncoming effects of global warming. 

Equally, when it comes to sustainability, not everything is as it seems. 

In Singapore, where the nation’s ambitious zero-waste initiatives are as well-known as its low domestic recycling rates, the current health crisis has intensified the contradictory nature of this concrete ‘Garden City’. 

Last year the city-state became the first Southeast Asian country to introduce producer responsibility laws, with the government also announcing its grand waste reduction master plan with lofty targets to economise on packaging, electronic and food waste. But at the same time, new trends in online shopping and food delivery pushed up plastic usage to an annual average of 1.76 billion items – among them 473 million disposable plastic items such as takeaway containers – with less than 20% recycled

Here, some of the concrete jungle’s top green thinkers share the truths that they believe the pandemic has revealed about the city-state’s sustainability and recycling trends, as well as what changes need to be made.  

Key takeaways from Covid-19

“You ask any Singaporean what they love about their country, and they’ll say the food!” smiles Mallika Naguran, Managing Editor and founder of sustainable tourism publication, Gaia Discovery

The start of the circuit breaker on April 7 meant the closure of dine-in facilities, and the rise of takeaways for Singaporeans to get their foodie fix, and for F&B outlets to stay in business. Those compact cartons add up. According to a Today report, the two-month circuit breaker period produced an extra 1,334 tonnes of plastic waste, equivalent to the weight of 92 double-decker buses. 

Mallika Naguran. Photo: Supplied

We have environmental laws; we have certain waste management laws. The government just passed a resource sustainability bill. They should no longer delay putting in place a recycling law

With the situation at hand, it does seem like packaging waste reduction has taken a back-burner temporarily,” admitted Hailin Pek, Executive Director of civic organisation Zero Waste SG in April, as the government relaxed its deadlines on the producer responsibility laws that would reduce usage of public packaging. 

Yet even before the pandemic, Singapore’s recycling rate was low for a developed country. Last year just 4% of the city-state’s plastic waste was recycled, with about 0.9 million tonnes of plastic sent to landfill. Compare this to Germany, the world’s best recycling nation, where 56.1% of waste was recycled in 2017

Plastic isn’t just joining us at mealtimes, it now accompanies us wherever we go. 

Plastic containers have stacked up during the pandemic. Photo: Amanda Oon

“There’s been a rise the usage of personal protective equipment, your mask and your gloves and disposable reusable equipment,” explains Mathilde Moyell Juul, founder of green lifestyle platform Orgayana.

As protective face-masks threaten to outnumber jellyfish in the Mediterranean, Singapore’s green pioneers worry that the surge in protective plastics may be more than the nation’s recycling levels will be able to handle. 

“The domestic recycling rate is falling and something needs to be done,” says Naguran firmly. “We have environmental laws; we have certain waste management laws. The government just passed a resource sustainability bill last year. So [they] should no longer delay putting in place a recycling law. They miss a huge chunk, where households are concerned.” 

Green governance? 

But the government’s major issue, according to Olivia Choong, co-founder of Green Drinks, is that it “has a lot of wonderful initiatives, but they don’t communicate very well … People get the wrong impression that they don’t care”. 

Since its launch in 2007 her non-profit environmental society has shifted its focus from hosting its own events to working closely with public sector agencies like the PUB, and National Climate Change Secretariat, to co-produce consultations and engagement sessions for target audiences.  

Olivia Choong. Photo: Supplied

There are opportunities … Most people had never heard of these companies before. Consumer behaviour is changing

Never before has clear messaging been more critical. As the Lion City cautiously plans its next move towards the elusive “new normal”, Tan Kok Yam, Deputy Secretary of Singapore’s Smart Nation and Digital Government Office stressed that “we should guard against climate action being side-lined, delayed or postponed because of this pandemic”. Speaking at the recent Ricoh Eco Action Day, he called for the public and private sector to work together, but for the eco-warriors on the ground, it should be up to those at top to set a visible precedent. 

“The government should lead by example,” states Naguran. “One of the things that I heard about Coronavirus was people started buying cars. They don’t want to take public transport. That’s not sustainable … but I don’t remember seeing any of our ministers on bicycles or on the metro!” 

For her, the recovery period needs leaders who are environmental visionaries, “not just people who come up with laws or rules”.

A more sustainable “new normal”

“I’m still surprised,” muses Moyell Juul, “why Singapore wouldn’t want to be number one as they like to be in most things”. Moving from her native Denmark six years ago, where she “grew up composting in [her] own garden”, Moyell Juul was initially shocked at the lack of transparency and efficiency over simple things like recycling in the city-state. Since then, she admits, the progress has been dramatic, due mostly to the “huge grassroots movement here”. 

Mathilde Moyell Juul. Photo: Supplied

My worry is there is too much other important stuff to think about now … Keeping your job. Staying sane. Really basic things that make you think, ‘Bloody hell. I just don’t care’

Choong believes that in some cases, the pandemic has helped these initiatives rise from under the radar, especially when they’re digital age friendly, like the eco-takeaway app. barePack, which loans reusable packaging to F&B outlets. Users can choose from a network of partner eateries, and a selection of rentable containers, which can then be scanned and returned at a chosen location and date. Founded in 2019, business has never been better during the pandemic. 

“There are opportunities,” Choong stresses. “Most people had never heard of these companies before. Consumer behaviour is changing.” 

The question is whether this change can continue. Choong hopes that “during Covid-19, people would have found the plastic waste generated at home excessive … and this could make them more receptive to changing their habits in the future”. 

Moyell Juul is less optimistic. 

“My worry is there is too much other important stuff to think about now,” she warns. “Keeping your job. Staying sane. Really basic things that make you think, ‘Bloody hell. I just don’t care’”.

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