(Delivered in Parliament on 4 September 2019)
Mr Speaker, with climate change and sustainability increasingly a hot button issue across the globe, it is timely to think about how we manage our waste as we set about building a sustainable Singapore. The amount of solid waste disposed has increased exponentially due to our affluence, population growth and consumption habits. Singapore’s only landfill, Semakau Landfill, is expected to reach capacity in just 16 years if we continue to generate waste at current rates.
This is a ticking timebomb that needs urgency in tackling. I am therefore heartened to see efforts being dedicated towards that end. The Resource Sustainability Bill we have before us is a timely addition to Singapore’s waste management strategy by targeting the three main streams of waste in Singapore: electrical or electronic products and e-waste, food waste and packaging, and I support the Bill’s aims to augment our waste management strategies. However, I would like to touch on a few topics related to circularity and resource sustainability that I hope the minister can clarify on how they will be addressed moving forward.
(1) Packaging reporting
There has been much coverage over the impact of packaging waste over our environment. However, our reliance on such single-use packaging have only continue to deepen despite efforts such as the voluntary Singapore Packaging Agreement. A main source of such packaging waste is made from plastic, and looking at the statistics over time, plastic waste disposed has gone way up from 540,800 tonnes in 2003 to 908,600 tonnes in 2018. As such, this House has unsurprisingly seen much debate over single-use plastics, including those used for packaging. However, data on the detailed use of such packaging does not seem to be tracked now.
Therefore, mandatory packaging reporting seems necessary as a first step towards a framework to regulate packaging products, and such is the case under Part 4 of the Bill. Under clause 20 of the Bill, companies are required to submit a report relating to the specified packaging provided that they fulfil the prescribed threshold criteria. While it is not clear in the Bill itself, the Zero Waste Masterplan notes the problem is on excessive packaging, and the initial aim of the framework at producers of packaged products and supermarkets with turnover of more than $10 million. This is a start, but I do have some concerns.
Singapore currently serves as a key market and a regional showcase for many companies and franchisees, be it homegrown brands or foreign brands. The packaging waste generated by many such companies can be substantial, including companies or businesses with not more than turnover of S$10 million.
Can I ask the minister why a revenue threshold was chosen in the reporting standard? The concern here is that by focusing on the bigger players, we may be losing sight of the SMEs who may be used to single-use plastics as they have no resources to work on alternatives. How will the ministry help businesses below that turnover threshold limit their packaging, especially businesses that have always used much packaging e.g. food and other retail businesses?
This issue is important to get right, especially for currently small but fast growing companies such as Grain and Wok Hey. Helping them with packaging standards at first will be more cost effective than to have them switch over and comply to new standards at a later date.
Furthermore, since producers of specified packaging who fulfils the prescribed threshold criteria in any year (T) must, in year T+2, submit to NEA a report relating to the specified packaging that is imported or used in year T+1, it appears that there will be a two-year time lag in calculating the total amount of packaging reported. Therefore, the earliest this information will be reported will be in 2021 as noted in the news. In the meantime, how will NEA work to ensure that between now and 2021, the companies will actively work towards less packaging? Has there been any companies that have given information to the relevant agencies on this? Will this data be made public? A clear benefit of releasing such data is to let relevant organisations use it for a Green Score system that allows companies to be judged on their efforts and targets to reduce packaging waste. This can incentivise companies to work towards reduction targets as an interim measure until NEA releases an Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) scheme for packaging companies.
(2) Treatment of food waste
Mr Speaker, food waste looks to be a costly and big problem that we have yet to find an effective way to handle. The Singapore Environment Council indicated in a recent study that food loss contributes to an estimated $2.54 billion from farm to market within Singapore. Key waste statistics from NEA indicate that while food waste stands at 10% of all waste generated, recycling stands at 17% of the food waste generated in 2018. It is an improvement from 6% in 2003, but evidently more can be done to tackle the remaining waste.
However, our campaign against food waste seems lacklustre. The year-long Food Waste campaign is non-binding on citizens. In many government and university events, anecdotes of good catered food going to waste as they are left unconsumed are a dime a dozen. Even as we must balance the needs between hygiene and waste management, the fact remains that food waste is a fundamental issue that require bigger changes, indeed an overhaul, to ensure that the loop can be closed and allow for effective regeneration of such resources.
In the news, there are reports of plans from PUB to treat food waste into biogas at Tuas Nexus and of urban insect farms supported by Enterprise Singapore that are targeted at the food waste issue as well. Such grandiose plans, however, will take time to integrate.
In the meantime, perhaps making consumption adjustments on major waste producers will see more immediate impact. As Clause 4 of the Bill binds the Government on the provisions of the Bill, we could start from the Public Service to signal the seriousness that this government takes in tackling a fundamental issue. How would the Public Service support efforts to reduce food waste internally? I have seen in a Straits Times Forum reply that SAF tries to keep food waste to a minimum. This could be extended to the whole of Public Service, with a firm public commitment to lead by example and reduce food waste that it produces. This will send a good signal to the private sector and can even be a good way to reduce overheads in holding events, however slight.
Also, under the Bill, occupiers of a prescribed building or part of a prescribed building must segregate food waste. In addition to food waste segregation facilities, building managers of a new building must also provide treatment facilities. I would like to ask the minister what the expected use of food waste from new buildings will be, and if there will be enough off-takers of food waste slurry or compost.
Finally, how is MEWR currently helping charities that collect food from shops or food outlets and deliver it to needy residents and if so, perhaps the minister can share with us what are these efforts and whether more support can be extended to these charities as this would help support the food waste and packaging waste goals and such charities play an important role in helping us to achieve this goal.
(3) E-waste collection by individuals
Next, with the proliferation of digital devices, e-waste is increasingly a problem. Many households keep devices that no longer work, not knowing where to dispose of them. I am therefore concerned about how certain provisions in the Bill may adversely hinder current e-waste collection efforts.
Under the provisions of the Bill, public collection of e-waste will henceforth be prohibited unless they are operating a licensed scheme or have written approval of the NEA to do so. Any person who does so will be liable on conviction to a fine not exceeding S$5,000. Would these provisions within this Bill negatively affect well-intended public collection? How about the ‘karang guni’ men who also provide collection services? I am of the view that NEA should encourage ground-up initiatives from members of the public, NGOs and small shops to enable such recycling in conjunction with industry stakeholders. Therefore, I hope that such written permission from NEA will be easy to obtain at little to no cost if they are doing such public collection with good intentions.
I would also like to ask the minister how does MEWR intend to enforce against retailers when they fall foul of the provisions of the Bill after it is passed and what recourse would the public have if retailers refuse to accept e-waste? What recourse can the public take to effectively report errant behaviour on the part of such retailers?
It was noted that by SMS Amy Khor in COS 2018 that through aggregating e-waste and enabling more efficient collection and processing, there will be greater value captured from e-waste and can help offset the cost of operating the e-waste management system. As the small but burgeoning e-waste recycling industry will be boosted by the introduction of this framework, I hope some insights and assurances can be given on regulating precious metal recovery from e-waste. At this point, how do we ensure that the export of our e-waste for recycling purposes such that the Basel Convention is compiled with, and that the e-waste do not end up in the black market overseas? Given the potentially hazardous chemicals involved in recycling, what safety regulations are in place to ensure that such chemicals do not find themselves into the environment?
A case in point is Singapore-based Virogreen who had their import licence suspended for a year by Thailand’s Department of Industrial Works after police investigations. This was due to a batch of cargo with 96 tonnes of e-waste that was labelled as second-hand electronic appliances from countries including Singapore, which found its way, according to Thai media reports, into their e-waste management plants.
Such news is disconcerting, as such waste exports has been a source of diplomatic tensions and we do not want to impact the environment of our neighbours adversely as well. Ministerial reassurances in this area will go some way to assuage concerns on the impact on our environment or that we may be exporting our e-waste problem away to the detriment of other countries.
(4) Marine pollution
Mr Speaker, tackling the main streams of waste is key to minimize marine pollution that has impacted not just our shorelines, but also the shorelines and waterways of our neighbours. I wish to add my voice to support the recent Bangkok Declaration on combating Marine Debris that Singapore has adopted, but I hope we can do more on the preventative end.
A key source of marine pollution has been microplastics. Singapore has not been immune from this source of pollution, with microplastics in our own coastline found to be carrying toxic pathogens that causes coral bleaching and wound infections. To prevent more of such microplastics from entering the environment and wrecking damage, I wish to ask the minister if he will consider a ban on primary microplastic production and use. Such bans have been introduced in the European Union to be enforced by 2020. I believe that banning the production of primary microplastics will send a good signal in our commitment to reduce the impact of microplastics on our environment.
Mr Speaker, in closing, I look forward to the minister’s clarifications and answers. Notwithstanding my concerns, I support the bill.