A FEW days ago, I found myself in the curious position of having no plastic bags left in the house, and needing to take out the trash.
By Grace Chua
That meant going to the supermarket and buying something that I was going to buy anyway, like a bunch of bananas, in order to get a bag to line my bin with.
Earlier this week, the Singapore Environment Council proposed that supermarkets, food outlets and provision shops start charging for plastic bags.
A flurry of letters to the press ensued, some arguing this would be too much of a burden, others calling it too little.
Like many others, I have a love-hate relationship with plastic bags.
Making and distributing them takes fossil fuels, and they do not break down in landfills or the ocean. A plastic bag, fluttering vacantly in the wind, is an easily demonised symbol for fossil fuel and resource consumption.
Yet it has multiple uses, particularly in modern cities. You may be able to eat that curry puff on the go or wrap groceries in newspaper, but you can't really get on the bus dripping a trail of fishy water from a paper bag.
In fact, the environmental case for or against plastic bags isn't so clear-cut.
An Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*Star) study found that it takes 1.22kg of crude oil and 0.4kg of natural gas to make 1kg of plastic carrier bags. The real life-cycle cost of a plastic bag must also factor in the transport of that crude oil and gas, the processing of fossil fuels into polypropylene, and transporting the finished product to the city centre.
When all those costs are taken into account, plastic bags may not be worse than paper or reusable bags.
Earlier this year, the United Kingdom's Environment Agency released a study showing that you would need to reuse a paper bag three times for its global warming impact to be as low as that of one high-density polyethylene (HDPE) plastic carrier bag.
And cotton bags are not innocent either. Making them uses fuel, water and resources. One cotton bag would have to be reused 131 times to have the same global warming impact as one HDPE bag.
If all HDPE plastic bags are reused once as bin liners, their environmental impact goes down still more. A paper bag would have to be reused seven times and a cotton bag 327 times for their impact to equal that of a plastic bag reused once.
What about biodegradable plastic and starch-plastic bags? They weigh more than ordinary plastic bags and so consume more energy during production and distribution, the UK report found.
The practical reality is, plastics are a part of modern life. They are popular for good reason: they are better than the existing alternatives at keeping food fresh or preventing contamination. They are lighter, waterproof and more durable.
So the issue is not about getting rid of plastic bags altogether. The issue is that far more are handed out each day than we really need. It's about us minimising the use of plastic bags and thinking sensibly about what is a need, and what is a want.
The proposed 10-cent levy isn't meant to defray the cost of producing or disposing of that plastic bag. It's meant to be a nudge: do you really need that bag?
So is making people pay for plastic bags a good thing? It depends.
On the plus side, it can discourage overuse. Ireland introduced a plastic bag fee, or 'PlasTax' in 2002. It cut plastic bag use by 90 per cent, or nearly a million bags a year. The tax, now at €0.33 (S$0.55) per bag, has generated over €120 million for a state-run Environmental Fund that pays for waste recycling and garbage collection.
If there is a 10-cent levy imposed, all or at least part of the 'bag tax' should go to the Government to support environmental programmes, rather than straight into the pockets of retailers.
On the negative side, bag bans or levies can backfire if they encourage poorer substitutes. After a carrier bag levy of 50 Hong Kong cents (S$0.08) was imposed in 2009 in Hong Kong, people turned to heavier, thicker garbage bags to use as bin liners. Though the number of plastic carrier bags used dropped 77 per cent, the overall use of plastics in all bags went up 27 per cent, according to a 2011 study by the Hong Kong plastics industry.
Those seeking to ban or charge for bags must understand cultural practices.
Many people in Singapore reuse plastic bags for their trash. There are no laws mandating the bagging of household rubbish in Singapore, but public hygiene - and plain neighbourliness - would prod most of us to do so anyway.
That is not to say all plastic bags are necessary. One large bakery chain bags its cakes and buns individually at the cashier, before putting them into a larger plastic bag. Over-packaging is a cardinal sin against the environment. Besides plastic bags, many single-use styrofoam and plastic items are also unnecessary, such as takeaway boxes, cups and cutlery.
The proposed levy on plastic bags is thus not a statement that plastic bags are bad and should be stamped out. It is just a small symbol of a larger push to get consumers to think twice about their habits.
One writer to The Straits Times Forum page pointed out that not everyone carries a reusable bag around for small, spur-of-the-moment purchases.
That is a good starting point to consider whether you need that small, spur-of-the-moment purchase in the first place. You don't save the environment by choosing paper bags for your unnecessary purchases; you do a better job by cutting out that consumption in the first place.
It is so difficult for us to be mindful of consumption and waste, that a bag levy would be a necessary kick in the butt in the right direction.
As for me, I don't mind paying 10 cents for the privilege of having a bag to put my rubbish in like a civilised human being, before I throw it down the chute.
That in turn makes me think twice about generating so much rubbish in the first place. Seen from that perspective, 10 cents is really a small price to pay for a regular reminder of the need to conserve the earth's resources.