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Reusable bags and straws a good start to the broader phasing out of plastic

The work of individuals and corporations can mobilise society to engage in collective action to mitigate the catastrophic effects of climate change



QUICK - how many reusable bags have you received for free in the last year? How often has each of those bags ended up being used?

Reusable alternatives to plastic bags and straws are increasingly hogging the environmental limelight as their distribution proliferates - and provokes criticism that they are over-provided and then under-used.

So, in the grand scheme of things, what are we to make of reusables?

"The most important issue that the world faces today is climate change, not plastic," said assistant professor of environmental studies at Yale-NUS Matthew Schneider-Mayerson.

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"Too often we conflate issues that vary in gravity and urgency under the umbrella of 'the environment' ... but one of these issues is much more urgent and permanent than the other."

"The risk of single-mindedly focusing on single-use plastic is that it distracts people from the fact that institutions, corporations, and governments continue to invest in the fossil fuels that cause climate change, knowingly sacrificing our futures."

Jiehui Kia, principal strategist at sustainability non-profit Forum for the Future, said the ultimate message behind campaigns for reusables is that we should all strive to buy and use only what we need. But because direct calls to reduce consumption may be perceived as anti-growth, "still largely a no-go zone in our public discourse", Ms Kia suggests that the accounting principle of materiality might be a helpful tool for thinking environmentally.

Materiality focuses on the threshold at which information becomes significant or relevant.

As a global trading and financial hub, Singapore's most material contribution to climate change is via supply chains, as we finance fossil fuel projects in Southeast Asia and refine petrochemicals for the world, she said.

"Until we ask difficult questions about our contribution to climate change through these commercial and industrial activities that directly result in the economic success we have become synonymous with, Singapore cannot truly be said to be doing the 'real work' of mitigating the catastrophic effects of climate change."

But can plastic goods - a day-to-day feature of the present for most Singaporeans - be an entry point into thinking about a future compromised by fossil fuels?

"Reusable bags and straws are things that the ordinary person can relate to, so I would say it is a good start," said National University of Singapore (NUS) Business School professor Thompson Teo.

DBS Bank chief sustainability officer Mikkel Larsen similarly believes that "small, simple and accessible ways to reduce, reuse and recycle can reap significant and long-term benefits for the environment, particularly when done at scale.

"Effective corporate social responsibility, to us, would mean that these efforts end up mainstream."

For an island low on options, reducing waste is certainly a material concern, even if not one equivalent to climate change - our lone Semakau landfill is expected to be full by 2035.

But even in this context, reusable bags and straws will only be effective if they are hitched to a broader phasing out of plastic, said Singapore Management University (SMU) assistant professor of science, technology and society Fiona Clare Williamson.

"There is little point in using your own bag if the fruits you are buying are wrapped in plastic, with an inner plastic tray," she said.

"Individuals need to put pressure on the same companies, make more conscious choices to lead the market and persuade their friends."

Corporations can also utilise this sort of eco-friendly peer-pressure.

City Developments Limited (CDL) realised that it could amplify its role in the green building movement through its commercial tenants, using measures like electricity rebates for those who reduced power usage in the previous quarter, said CDL chief sustainability officer Esther An.

That said, the work of individual citizens and corporations has to mobilise us into larger movements.

"The issue now is that individual action is being framed as a silver bullet," said Yale-NUS assistant professor of environmental sciences Marvin Joseph Montefrio.

"We call this the neoliberalisation of environmental action."

SMU associate professor of humanities Winston Chow, who studies urban vulnerability to climate change, is also sceptical: "In the context of actions that 'push the needle' at large scales, I'm afraid individual actions are rather limited, unless you count having one less child."

"As Singaporeans, we need to go beyond our 'individual consumer' bubble," said Prof Montefrio. "We need to engage environmental discourses as a community and creatively engage in collective action."

He suggests engaging our local MPs, company executives at work, financial institutions and grassroots organisations to indicate the changes we want, and to join collective actions like petitions and grassroots efforts.

How might we then transition from the accessibility of individual actions to the power of the collective?

Ms Kia suggests starting with a question: where is my food from?

"When an urban dweller draws the link between what we (and our loved ones) eat, and the seemingly abstract notion of climate change, that is when we begin to become personally invested in understanding the root causes of climate change, and looking for real solutions to effect the system-level change that is needed."

An analysis of materiality can also apply to individuals, who are more than just consumers, said Ms Kia.

For example, teachers are materially involved in students' understanding of the relationship between humans and the environment, as CEOs are in businesses' contribution to the environment, and procurement officers are in the sustainability of the suppliers with whom they work.

"In all the hats we put on for various aspects of our lives, we have the opportunity to advocate for change in mindsets and behaviours," she said.

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