Another dot in the blogosphere?

When too much of a good thing is bad

Posted on: January 6, 2015

If you buy five small items from a pastry shop in a local mall or heartlands shop, you are likely to carry them off in six plastic bags. Each item will be in its own bag and all five will be in a larger one.

This example sounded familiar to me because I wrote about this in 1999 when I used to maintain my own website. Back then I asked myself, tongue firmly in cheek:

Why did each pastry need its own plastic bag? Were they “psychologically insecure” so that they need their own space? Was there some “racial” hatred among buns?

I noticed our insecure bun phenomenon almost 16 years ago. Why is our wasteful plastic bag legacy so hard to get rid of? The simple answer is that we have collectively enabled it.

Take another example.

In a letter to the ST forum, the co-founder of the Keep Singapore Clean Movement described how appalled he was with the state of littering post New Year’s Day parties despite the provision of 400 rubbish bins. Hundreds of workers had to clean up after party revellers. It reinforced the fact that we are not a naturally clean city but a cleaned one.

He compared Taipei with us:

  • Taipei: Three million residents, 5,000 cleaners
  • Singapore: Five million residents, 70,000 cleaners

A Singapore task force visiting Taipei found the Taiwanese city to be cleaner than ours. Why? In Taipei, people learn to pick up after themselves. In Singapore, we learn that someone else will clean up after us.

Back to bagging things.

According to this ST article, a cotton-based recyclable bag must be used at least 11 times to have a lower carbon footprint than the normal plastic bags liberally provided at grocery stores. The problem was that we receive too many recyclable bags. We do not use them as often as they should be used, or worse, dispose of them.

Providing so many rubbish bins or recyclable bags so that it is convenient for us has made us lazy. What should be a scaffold to promote good behaviour has become a crutch.

Look at how the authorities here encourage mixed recycling because they have statistics that show that if they insist on separated recycling, they do not meet KPIs. But they forget that doing this enables laziness: People do not learn to take the trouble to clean and then separate recyclables.

Recycling is as much an attitude as it is a habit. There is no point encouraging the habit by making it convenient, but forgetting about the long term value system of recycling and an equally long term education programme.

Such a programme may take more time and effort. It is also more painful to all stakeholders, but it can be very effective.

The world marvelled when Japanese fans cleaned up after themselves during the World Cup in Brazil. More recently, the Myanmar football fans did the same after a match in Singapore. Such behaviour is learnt and eventually embedded.

When I lived in Arizona, I had to pay for a rubbish collection fee and a recycling bin fee. If I did not recycle, I still had to pay for the latter fee. I was more conscious of what I threw away and what I recycled as a result.

Too much of a good thing is bad when a scaffold, no matter how well-intentioned, becomes a crutch. The better thing to do is to educate and change mindsets even though this is more painful and takes a long time.

The best thing to do is not wait for someone else to run a change programme. I teach my son how to recycle. I refuse multiple bags at pastry shops even though this confuses the aunties who bag the buns. I do these things because enduring processes start one person at a time.

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