Tackling our Packaging Waste Problem

Singapore Green Plan
Jan 7 · 5 min read

Shampoo bottles, milk cartons, shipping boxes… Think about all the packaging that your consumer goods come in — mostly single-use items, oftentimes necessary to contain or protect the product, but sometimes with no purpose other than fancy branding. Yet, our daily lives are filled with them. Of the 1.6 million tonnes of domestic waste we disposed of in 2018, a full third was made up of packaging!

More than half of this packaging waste was made of plastic, but only 4% of our plastic waste was recycled. This means that the significant resources that go into producing and transporting our packaging materials, such as petroleum (for plastics), paper, energy and water, literally go up in flames after their short-lived life. (Yes, all our waste in Singapore is incinerated, which means biodegradable packaging and paper bags are often no better, and may be even worse choices than plastic ones!) Furthermore, carbon emissions are generated from the incineration process, and the resulting ashes take up valuable space at Semakau Landfill.

Thankfully, there are significant efforts across the government, NGOs and private sectors to reduce the amount of packaging waste we generate.

Initiatives by the Government to Regulate Packaging Waste

There are several government initiatives aimed at regulating and supporting the industry to manage packaging waste. The Mandatory Packaging Reporting (MPR) framework requires retailers and producers of packaged products (such as supermarkets, brand owners, manufacturers and importers) to submit packaging data and waste reduction plans to the National Environment Agency (NEA).

It also lays the foundation for an Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) framework for packaging waste management, which NEA plans to implement by 2025. EPR is a strategy where producers are made to bear the responsibility for the collection and treatment of their products when they reach end-of-life. In Singapore for example, a similar EPR framework has already been implemented for electronic waste, to ensure that e-waste is collected and channelled to proper recycling facilities.

To support companies in adopting sustainable packaging waste management practices, NEA has also partnered the Singapore Manufacturing Federation (SMF) to introduce a new industry-led initiative called the Packaging Partnership Programme, or PPP. It aims to build up industry capabilities in the 3Rs of packaging waste — namely reduce, reuse and recycle — and to introduce sustainable supply chain initiatives in packaging.

Efforts by businesses to reduce or eliminate packaging

As people become increasingly eco-minded in recent years, businesses have also consciously reduced their packaging and waste footprint.

Two youths, Ms Rachel Han and Ms Rachel Lee, saw this demand and founded Package Pals in 2020, which collects second-hand packaging such as polymailers, paper envelops and bubble wrap and re-distributes them to local businesses for reuse. They’ve since expanded to a team of 20 volunteers! By keeping perfectly-reusable packaging in use for longer periods, we can reduce the demand for new packaging and keep existing packaging out of our waste stream — thereby reducing our environmental impact on both ends.

Buying your pantry items at zero-waste bulk stores means no packaging waste and the option of getting just the right amount that you need, thus minimising food waste.

The past few years have also seen the emergence of ‘zero-waste’ bulk stores, which eschew the use of packaging in favour of the bring-your-own-container and pay-by-weight model. An example is home-grown business Unpackt, Singapore’s first zero-waste bulk store founded in 2018. Stepping into their store, you will find no packets or boxes of groceries. Instead, bulk bins line the walls, and customers can weigh out however much or little product into their own containers, to be paid by weight. Even mainstream supermarkets have caught on too, with such bulk sections found at selected NTUC and Cold Storage outlets. This approach has found favour not only with eco-conscious customers, but also singles and smaller families who enjoy the option of purchasing exactly the amount of product they need.

Innovation on the Packaging Front

Yet others have approached the packaging problem in new and innovative ways.

Mykílio, for example, has recently won funding from the SG Eco Fund to explore the potential of mycelium-based packaging. The team makes their substrate from food waste collected from local F&B outlets (such as coffee grounds and fruit leftovers, which would otherwise be sent for incineration) and then inoculates it with mycelium spores. As the mycelium consumes the substrate, it creates air pockets which gives it thermal and shock insulation properties — making it a promising sustainable replacement for shipping packaging such as styrofoam. Hopefully in a few years, we can see our consumer products being shipped in sustainable mycelium boxes!

The folks at Mykílio are exploring mycelium-innoculated substrates as sustainable replacements for styrofoam packaging.

Another team from A-STAR’s Institute of Chemical and Engineering Sciences is developing a chemical recycling method for plastic-embedded multilayer films (MLFs). MLFs are found in most of the food, beverage and pharmaceutical packaging today, and their difficulty of recycling means that they are currently just incinerated. The team’s innovative method makes it possible to extract valuable, pure components from these films that can then be reused multiple times.

If you have an idea to reduce packaging waste, look out for the next grant call of the SG Eco Fund — your sustainable idea may be awarded funding and turned into reality!

A Massive Problem with A Silver Lining

Under the Singapore Green Plan 2030, we aim to reduce the waste sent to our landfill by 20% by 2026.

You can help Singapore achieve this target by practising the 3Rs:

  • Reduce — for example, purchase soap refill packs instead of new bottles where available, shop at wet markets and zero-waste stores that minimise packaging

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