More Urgency Needed in Zero Waste Masterplan and Solving Food Insecurity is a Climate Change Action

Anthea Indira Ong
Sep 4 · 9 min read

Parliamentary Speech for Resource Sustainability Bill, 4 Sep 2019

Introduction

Mr Deputy Speaker, I support the Bill for this is critically necessary for the Zero Waste Masterplan to have any bite. This Masterplan has been eagerly anticipated by the community and was ceremoniously launched last Friday. In fact, I think even the Ministry was eager to get this going that this Bill was referred to as the “Act” in the Masterplan and on the website when I checked in after the launch. I thank SMS Amy Khor for taking my feedback on that misunderstanding which has now been updated.

The Bill’s intent is to fortify the regulatory teeth needed to ensure sustainability in the consumption of resources, which our planet has a finite amount of. However, the Bill can and must do much more to reflect the urgency of the climate crisis which I would like to discuss. I would also like to take this opportunity with the Bill to urge the government to take a bold and different perspective in solving food security challenge for our vulnerable groups as a critical climate change action.

Ways to signal URGENCY with this Bill and Zero Waste Masterplan

Mr. Deputy Speaker, we are not short of daily reminders that ‘yesterday would have been better’ for taking actions against human-caused climate change. The United Nations International Panel on Climate Change, or IPCC had warned in Oct 2018 that we only have 12 years, or 11 years now, for global warming to be kept to a maximum of 1.5 degrees celsius in order to limit climate change catastrophe per the Paris Agreement which we are a party of.

Closer to home, our waste generation has not reduced substantially at all. We generated 7.70 million tonnes of solid waste in 2018, only a 9,000-tonne or a dismal 0.1% decrease from the previous year. In 2018, we generated 763,100 tonnes of food waste, accounting for 10% of our total waste. At this rate, our landfill will run out of space in 2035.

Time is not on our side. Please allow me to propose further measures that must be implemented to signal the urgency.

First, Mr Deputy Speaker, smart targets and goals. Having companies simply report on their plans to reduce, reuse or recycle products in the Bill is insufficient. Reporting obligations have no bite if it is not accompanied by waste production limits and recycling targets for producers. We must set SMART goals that are specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and time-bound so the producers can plan and prepare accordingly. For e.g, the European Union Packaging Directive 2018 sets that by 2025, 65% by weight of all packaging must be recycled, with specific recycling targets for each material, such as 50% for plastic and 75% for paper and cardboard. By 2030, the target for recycled packaging is increased to 70%, including 55% for plastic and 85% of paper and cardboard. Such reduction targets can be achieved with ingenuity. In 2018, Unilever launched a three litre bottle for their Omo laundry detergent brand in Brazil, with a formula at six times the concentration of the original, so it can be diluted in people’s homes. This has reduced the volume of plastic used by 75%. Companies must also inform customers about maintenance and repair services, environmental impacts and materials. Retailers should also actively inform customers of sustainable products. We can emulate the ambitious target setting and look to have companies report their progress on waste minimisation year-on-year via a measure of waste per unit of product output.

Second, we must encourage public accountability and corporate stewardship by mandating these reports to be made public. Currently, the Singapore Exchange listing rules already has sustainability reporting guidelines but with no specific metrics prescribed. If we would like to see resource sustainability as a core part of doing business, it would seem sensible to stipulate the targets above as a standard reporting requirement or all listed companies. I understand that the Hong Kong Stock Exchange had a recent consultation on ESG reporting to (1) “require disclosure of significant climate-related issues” and (2) amend the “Environmental” key performance indicators (“KPIs”) to require disclosure of relevant targets.

Third, to escalate the adoption of sustainability mindset and ensure affordability, we could incentivise producers/retailers with tax rebates, so that these obligations do not merely end in increased costs for reporting and collection, and the possibility of penalty — all of which will ultimately be passed on to consumers. In China and Thailand, the EPR schemes introduced subjected companies producing non-biodegradable goods to taxes, and offered tax credits as incentives for companies that used waste as raw materials.

Finally, if we want to reduce our resource footprint, we need to broaden the notion of sustainability. Singapore’s Earth Overshoot Day for 2019 is 12 April 2019. This means that if the world consumed like us, we would be consuming 3 times as much resources as the earth can regenerate in a given year. If we were to drive true resource sustainability we not only have to compel producers to reduce packaging, and have mandatory take-back programmes, we need electronics producers and retailers to be truly incentivised to extend product lifetimes, ensure maintenance and repair services availability. This is an area where legislation is fast moving in the EU. For example, in France, planned obsolescence of an electronic product is a criminal offence. There are also ongoing discussions in the EU that expected product lifetime be labelled.

Solving food security for vulnerable groups is critical climate change action

Mr. Deputy Speaker, as we discuss these measures to address the climate crisis, we must not miss the tremendous opportunity to reduce and redistribute the phenomenal 763,100 tonnes of food waste generated every year can provide for a more climate-just outcome for the estimated 400,000 food-insecure people in Singapore. Let me caveat this number as an estimated derivation from the 2017/2018 Household Expenditure Survey. A 2018 study by the Lien Centre for Social Innovation also found one in five low-income households face severe food insecurity.

Let me illustrate why I think this is a tremendous opportunity. Of the 763,000 tonnes of food loss a year, let’s assume conservatively that half of them or 382,000 tonnes can be salvaged and redistributed. One meal, conservatively, uses 1 kg and therefore we will get about 382 million meals from the redistributable food loss. Each person eats 1,095 daily meals a year, which is to say, we can safely feed about 390,000 people a year. That means, Mr. Speaker, this food loss every year could provide food security for all our vulnerable groups!

Prime Minister Lee sounded a clarion call for Singapore to recognise the threat that climate change poses to us. We must never forget that for most of the world, Singapore included, the most vulnerable amongst us will be hit hardest. Climate change is already affecting rice production in the Mekong Delta. As temperature rises changes agriculture productivity and sea level rises, food availability will inevitably be affected. For the 400,000 food-insecure people in Singapore, any price increase is detrimental.

SG Food Rescue is a small group of individuals, and they have demonstrated that there is much in our food value chain that can be saved and redistributed. Its volunteers collect a staggering 1500kg of unsold fresh produce once a week from Pasir Panjang Wholesale Centre. Sometimes they collect twice a week for a total of 2500kg of unsold fresh produce. 500–700kg of that goes to charities, namely, Free Food For All, Beyond Social Services and St. Theresa’s Home that feed the needy while the rest is sent to a soup kitchen in Little India, Krishna’s Kitchen. The soup kitchen processes the vegetables and turns them into meals to feed the hungry, especially migrant workers in the Little India area. About 200 kg ends up with a community initiative in Marine Terrace — just down the road from where I live, and one of the 6 public community fridges, benefitting low-income residents.

And we can do even more, and we need to do so urgently and systemically. We can shape food-loss-reducing behaviours by changing our food labelling policies and also enacting the Good Samaritan Laws. In Singapore, “use by”, “sell by”, “expiry date” and “best before” all mean expiry date, according to the Singapore Food Agency. Products are not allowed to be sold or distributed in Singapore past that date. This is therefore a huge source of food waste. In many countries including United Kingdom, Hong Kong, Australia and New Zealand, ‘use by’, ‘best before and ‘sell by’ mean that after the food reaches its ‘use-by’ date, the quality and flavour of the food is lowered but it could still be edible. Studies found that when a link between date labels, food waste, and its environmental impacts is made, the willingness-to-pay for expired food increases, particularly for expired frozen or recently expired semi-perishable products.

Food that has gone past its best before date can be donated to charities so long as its within 6 months of the best before date. I am pleased to note that the Singapore Food Agency is exploring Good Samaritan laws to ease business concerns over the donation of excess food. I strongly advocate for the implementation of such laws which have been implemented in countries such as Italy and the United States, and has encouraged food donations and reduced food waste.

As I mentioned before, incentives to help drive corporate behaviour cannot be overlooked. We could consider extending the underused Business-IPC Partnership Scheme or BIPs to include donation of edible food that would otherwise go to waste to charities. When supported by the Good Samaritan Laws, this is especially compelling for many businesses l know, like Samsui Supplies and Services, through the Company of Good, a corporate giving initiative by the National Volunteer & Philanthropy Centre.

Mr. Deputy Speaker, not only will such measures truly drive food resource sustainability, we could be relieving our financially strapped households of a huge burden. Based on the Report on the Household Expenditure Survey 2017/18, comparing the expenditures on food and income (excluding CPF) of our lowest quintile Singaporeans, 49% of their income is spent on food.

Mdm Gopal, in her 70s, who lives in Toa Payoh is one of them. She has zero income and survives on $500 per month from her SSO. As a beneficiary of Free Food For All, a charity that receives and redistributes donated food, she saves a minimum of $100/month. Larger families are able to save much more.

We would also be freeing up scarce resources dedicated for our social safety net for other essential needs such as healthcare. Based on our estimates on how much it costs for programmes like Meals-on-Wheels and Willing Hearts, that provide more than 10,000 daily meals in total, close to $15 million could be redirected to other aspects of social support. Especially as higher standards of living with higher temperatures mean that the basic needs of even our most vulnerable must also be constantly reviewed.

Conclusion

Mr Deputy Speaker, engaging the business community must be a top priority because sustainability is a future investment for economic growth, new market opportunities and job creation. Companies must be nudged out of their comfort zones into a greener and more innovative direction as we work towards building a circular economy. This Bill, and the Zero Waste Masterplan, is a step in the right direction but it is not enough. Not with the fierce urgency of the climate crisis, and rightful ambition that we must have to be a leader in climate change mitigation.

And more than that, sustainability is also a social parameter to secure a more inclusive society. As urgent as addressing the looming threats of climate change by reducing significant food loss — is the need to solve the food insecurity problem of so many fellow Singaporeans by redistributing this food loss. If a small group of citizen volunteers like SG Food Rescue can move hundreds of tonnes of food loss every year to where they are needed most, imagine what we can do if we — government, business and community — truly commit our will and resources to a national vision of getting all 400,000 people fed, and make climate change everyone’s concern? I believe we can do this.

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 volunteerism 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

Anthea Indira Ong

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I Am Here. Grateful. Human. Always.

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