Hazardous Products and Singapore’s Responsibility as a Global Citizen

Anthea Indira Ong
Feb 4 · 7 min read

Parliamentary Speech for the Hazardous Products (Amendment) Bill, 3 Feb 2020

Introduction

Mr Deputy Speaker, I stand in support of this Bill. This Bill signals Singapore’s intention and resolve to join the global community in ending the flows of plastic waste, and unsustainable consumption and disposal of plastic waste more generally. This is in line with Singapore’s commitment to being a responsible global citizen, especially in environmental sustainability.

However, in light of recent events, there are four issues relating to the transport of hazardous waste, including plastic waste, which I would like to address.

Singapore’s compliance with the Basel Convention obligations

First, I would like to ask the Minister on our compliance with our obligations under the Basel Convention so that we can evaluate our progress with the handling of hazardous waste.

What is the current status of Singapore’s Basel Convention obligations?

How many permits are issued for import, export, and transit respectively?

What are the destination countries where our waste goes to?

According to the National Environment Agency, only 7 percent of the 40,700 tonnes of plastic trash that was recycled last year was processed locally, and the rest was shipped overseas. It appears difficult to know what happens to the trash afterwards — how do we know they are recycled or dumped properly?

A 2018 Business Times reported that (I quote) “much of the plastic that is logged as recycled is shipped overseas — to China, Malaysia, Vietnam and Indonesia — where, if it cannot eventually be properly sorted and processed, it is incinerated or tipped into the sea.” (unquote)

Mr. Speaker, can the Minister please enlighten the House on the measures that Singapore implements to ensure that hazardous waste (per the Basel Convention) which leaves Singapore are treated to internationally-recognised standards at their destination?

(B) Ensuring Singapore companies and Singaporeans are good global citizens

Second, I urge the Minister to consider implementing more stringent measures to stop the illegal traffic of waste from Singapore to other countries in the region. Treating other countries as a dumping ground without consideration for the necessary health and safety measures would be doing a great disservice to our neighbours. There have been reported cases of illegal traffic of waste linked to Singapore.

Virogreen, a Singapore-registered company, was reported by Eco-Business in March 2019 as being implicated in a “e-waste smuggling ring” in Thailand. It reportedly exported goods labelled as “secondhand electronic appliances” from Singapore to Thailand. In Thailand, however, it was disposed of as waste. The waste management plants which received the e-waste salvaged the precious metals and disposed the rest. It is not known how they salvaged the metal, or how the rest of the e-waste was disposed. However, the fact that Virogreen was able to get away with declaring e-waste as functional secondhand goods is deeply concerning.

This is not the only case. In October 2019, Reuters reported that two Singaporeans imported 87 containers of plastic scrap without the correct permits. They are said to be a director and a commissioner of an Indonesian company respectively. To make matters worse, the plastic scrap was reportedly contaminated with “hazardous items such as printed circuit boards, used remote controls and used batteries”, all of which could pose health hazards.

These two cases have placed a black mark on Singapore’s reputation as a responsible global citizen. The Government has been regarding adherence to international environmental standards as a focus of Singapore’s much-lauded environmental governance, and rightly so. We must ensure that Singaporean directors and Singapore-registered companies are not infringing waste regulations in the region and globally. Increasing profit margins or reducing costs cannot be at the expense of our shared environment.

Singaporeans and Singapore companies, as ambassadors for Singapore, should uphold the same standards wherever they go. This is the same reason why Singapore prosecutes cases of corruption involving Singapore-registered companies under the Prevention of Corruption Act, regardless of where they happen.

As such, I would like to ask the Minister, what measures are in place to ensure that hazardous wastes are not exported under the guise of “secondhand” goods? What are the enforcement measures that can be used against Singaporeans and Singapore-registered entities who facilitate the contravention of the Basel Convention overseas? Are there any plans to create extraterritorial offences such as those found in the Prevention of Corruption Act to allow the prosecution of Singaporeans and Singapore-registered entities? If not, I would strongly urge the Minister to consider doing so.

© Ratification of the Ban Amendment to the Basel Convention

Third, Mr. Speaker, I would like to seek the Minister’s clarification on the Ban Amendment to the Basel Convention.

On 5 December 2019, the Ban Amendment to the Basel Convention, a global prohibition on dumping hazardous waste, enters into force almost 25 years after its adoption and officially becomes international law. The Ban Amendment prohibits the world’s wealthiest countries (OECD, EU member states, Liechtenstein) from exporting hazardous waste to non-OECD countries and forces them to internalise the costs of their own pollution. The ban addresses the challenges faced by developing countries in controlling the flood of hazardous waste imports, which strain their infrastructure and harm the environment and local communities. The countries that have ratified include our three closest neighbours, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Brunei. China has also adopted the Basel Ban.

Can the Minister please clarify on the following:

Are there reasons why Singapore has not ratified the Basel Ban Amendment?

Are there any entities in Singapore which import hazardous waste (per the Basel Convention) for treatment here?

(D) Singapore’s regional responsibility and opportunity in waste recycling

Last but not least, is there a regional role that Singapore can play in waste recycling given that our neighbours such as Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines are sending back plastic waste to their places of origin?

Just last week, National Environment Agency clarified that 3 containers of plastic waste were sent back to Singapore as Malaysian importer failed to get permits.

Could implementing a circular economy mitigate our and the region’s needs with the benefit of economies of scale? This could be both a regional responsibility and opportunity for Singapore, given the need for innovative waste management solutions. I ask this noting that the Zero Waste Master Plan issued by the Ministry of Environment and Water Resources last year stated that the Ministry “hope[s] to promote innovative circular business models and position our companies to seize opportunities in the region for specialised waste treatment, recycling or remanufacturing.”

Conclusion

As I conclude, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I would like to quote former US Secretary of State John Kerry, at the Our Ocean Conference in Bali, on 29 October 2018.

(quote) “In the 1950s and 60s, what brought me into public life was the nuclear freeze and arms control, the issues of peace… But now, folks, we need to face up to the fact that we’ve got to treat the issue of the oceans, protection of the oceans, protection of the planet, with the same urgency that we treated arms control and nuclear weapons… we need a non-proliferation treaty for pollution in the oceans.” (unquote)

As a state party to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, we should take note of Article 207(4) of the Convention, which specifically requires states to “endeavour to establish global and regional rules, standards and recommended practices and procedures to prevent, reduce and control pollution of the marine environment from land-based sources”.

I would boldly suggest that just as we had the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in 1968, and the Southeast Asian Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone Treaty of 1995, we should take the lead in proposing a non-proliferation treaty for plastic pollution which originates on land and ends up in the sea. This would require manufacturers to transition from manufacturing virgin plastics to harvesting and reusing recycled plastics. A study published in the journal, Nature Climate Change, in May 2019, has estimated that by just converting all plastic manufacturing to fully recycled plastic, we can reduce global greenhouse gas emissions by at least 1.6 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide-equivalent by 2050. That would be the equivalent of Japan’s estimated annual greenhouse gas emissions today.

We should not miss the opportunity to propose this at the next United Nations Environment Assembly in 2021.

Thank you.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~Anthea Ong is a Nominated Member of Parliament. (A Nominated Member of Parliament (NMP) is a Member of the Parliament of Singapore who is appointed by the President. They are not affiliated to any political party and do not represent any constituency. There are currently nine NMPs in Parliament.)

The multi-sector perspective that comes from her ground immersion of 12 years in different capacities helps her translate single-sector issues and ideas across boundaries without alienating any particular community/group. As an entrepreneur and with many years in business leadership, it is innate in her to discuss social issues with the intent of finding solutions, or at least of exploring possibilities. She champions mental health, diversity and inclusion — and climate change in Parliament.

She is also an impact entrepreneur/investor and a passionate mental health advocate, especially in workplace wellbeing. She started WorkWell Leaders Workgroup in May 2018 to bring together top leaders (CXOs, Heads of HR/CSR/D&I) of top employers in Singapore (both public and private) to share, discuss and co-create inclusive practices to promote workplace wellbeing. Anthea is also the founder of Hush TeaBar, Singapore’s 1st silent teabar and a social movement that aims to bring silence, self care and social inclusion into every workplace, every community — with a cup of tea. The Hush Experience is completely led by lovingly-trained Deaf facilitators, supported by a team of Persons with Mental Health Issues (PMHIs).

Follow Anthea Ong on her public page at www.facebook.com/antheaonglaytheng

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