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Posts Tagged ‘plastic

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This was the second time I have heard about a study that seems to support the use of single-use plastic bags. The first was this news article on similar research.

I say “seems” because, as host Hank Green pointed out, the answers are complicated. If we take a more holistic or systemic view of what different types of bags take away as resources and contribute as pollutants, single-use bags might actually play a better numbers game.

Green pointed out that one consideration that was missing from the study was the impact of these bags as pollutants to nature. One need only recall marine animals ingesting plastic bags and the bags breaking down as micro plastics which then make their way up the food chain. This factor is difficult to quantify.

I say there is another missing and even more difficult factor to measure. It is how the continued use of single-use plastic bags perpetuates the use-and-throw mentality. Users do know or care where the bags come from or where they end up. If we do not reduce our dependence on single-use plastic bags, we do not nurture a change in mindset because nothing seems wrong about it.

As usual, I see a parallel about mindsets in teacher and faculty professional development. Administrators and trainers alike still focus on content and skills of workshops or courses. They should. But they also need to address mindset change. No amount of new policies, expectations, or content is going to change behaviours if people do not first believe these are necessary.

Like trying to measure the impact of mindset on single-use plastic bags, addressing the mindsets of educators is difficult. But relegating or ignoring is not going to make the problem of harmful behaviours go away.

If there ever was a headline that created dissonance, it might be this one: Single-use plastic bags have ‘lower environmental footprint’ compared to paper and cotton bags in cities like Singapore.

Why dissonance? It counters the message that we need to reduce, reuse, and recycle. But there is more nuance to all sides of the environmental argument.

The “save the earth” message is heralded by the 3Rs as principles to practice. But this does not discount that context matters. If we take into account the environmental impact of bag “production, distribution, transportation, waste collection, treatment and end-of-life disposal”, single-use plastic bags could be “the most eco-friendly option” by this research project’s numbers.

Here is one more number. According to the principle investigator of the research project, “reusable plastic bags are the best option, provided that they are re-used many times – over 50 times to be precise”. These are better than single-use bags and even paper and cloth bags.

See? Dissonance.

To add to the discomfort is another caveat. Single-use plastic bags, if incinerated (like they are here) are the “best option that is currently available, provided that there is no significant leakage of waste into the environment”.

But all these figures and practices does not mean that we take a non-nuanced stance of doing what we already do: Use once and burn. What the article did not turn to is how the interpretation of such research affects human attitudes.

I would wager that most people cannot tell if they are using single-use or multiple-use plastic bags. Most Singaporeans still expect to get plastic bags and demand them if they do not. Service staff reach for plastic to wrap and bag with muscle memory. Just buy several buns at a local confectionary and watch the plastic bag version of Inception play out. The attitude is one of indifference, not nuanced use of bags.

No one is going to count the number of uses of every plastic bag. Very few care what happens to a plastic bag once they dispose of it. Tell any of these people that single-use bags are best here only entrenches ignorance (don’t know) and apathy (don’t care).

We need news articles that go beyond facts and figures. We need readers who are information literate so that they can tell the difference and make a difference.

What was your response to the headline More than 270 F&B outlets to stop providing plastic straws by Jul 1?

Mine was yeah and meh. I was glad to see some action to reduce our reliance on single-use plastics, but I wished we could collectively do more.

How much more? Last year I reflected on how Kenya joined a list of countries that banned plastic bags. Earlier this month news broke on how the state of Penang in Malaysia was doing the same.

In the meantime, I still have to tell curry puff and confectionary aunties that just one bag will do. I do not need every item cocooned in its own plastic blanket and put into yet another bag like a plastic version of Inception.

I also use a tengkat to takeaway food at stores I frequent and reusable bags to tote groceries. Sadly, I am among the few instead of the many.

I realise that the straw ban here might just be the start of a larger movement. I hope so. It had better not be the last straw…

Video source

Kenya banned plastic bags. They are not the only country to do this; they are just the most recent.

How did they do this?

It is hard to answer this question because the video shows a result and not the mediating processes. One might guess that political will and courageous activism were high on the list of change processes. And yet the video only hints at such processes.

Therein lies a lesson for those who go on “learning journeys” or “site visits”. You see the obvious products like policy documents and classroom layouts. You might even see model classes in action.

But these products do not always reveal the culture and processes of change. Learning about those important but insidious elements requires immersion or constant sensing, not snapshots or quick visits.

I am not saying that the visits are not worthwhile. I am saying that they are incomplete. If we do not take the effort to learn more about a system and how it changes, we kid ourselves into thinking we can do the same.

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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